College Basketball Nation: 2011 NCAA Elite Eight

VCU laughs all the way to Houston

March, 28, 2011
SAN ANTONIO -- When players from both teams shook hands before the game that broke the bracket once and for all, Kansas big man Marcus Morris went to the intimidation playbook once too often.

"You guys have had a good run," he told Virginia Commonwealth guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell. "But now it's over."

Morris and the Jayhawks had barked, shoved and bullied their way past Richmond here Friday night. Rodriguez warned Saturday that similar tactics in the regional final Sunday wouldn't work with the 11th-seeded Rams.

"We're a different set of guys," Rodriguez said.

Yeah, you could say that. A set of guys unlike any we've seen in NCAA tournament history.

The fearless senior point guard, who is a foot shorter than the glowering, hulking Morris, didn't cower. He laughed at the 6-foot-9 Morris. And after shocking the world and shutting the Jayhawks' pie holes 71-61, he and the Rams are still laughing.

All the way to Houston.

Click here for the full story.

Perfect mix creates Kentucky legend

March, 28, 2011
NEWARK, N.J. -- Clutching the regional trophy tight to his hip, Josh Harrellson stood amid the din of the Prudential Center, shaking his head in wonder.

This, he knew, wasn't supposed to happen. Not to him, certainly, and not to this team.

Kentucky was supposed to go to the Final Four a year ago, riding some of the best freshman talent ever assembled in one place.

That's long been John Calipari's game plan. He has built a career shredding the complexities of the college basketball game into one simple tenet: He who has the most talent wins.

And for the most part, his theory works. Calipari's teams win at a blistering rate, stockpiling victories like milk during a blizzard before the talent bolts for the greener pastures of NBA paychecks.

So how, then, to explain this: Harrellson, a guy who averaged all of 1.3 points per game last season, is going to the Final Four and DeMarcus Cousins didn't. DeAndre Liggins, a guy everyone told Calipari to run off when he took over for Billy Gillispie, hit the decisive bucket in the Wildcats' 76-69 win over North Carolina and not John Wall.

If basketball were a morality play, the moral at the end of this story might read simply: Talent isn't always enough.

Click here for the full story.

Video: VCU guard Joey Rodriguez

March, 27, 2011
PM ET's Pat Forde talks with VCU's Joey Rodriguez after the Rams defeated Kansas in the Elite Eight.

Video: Kentucky's first Final Four since '98

March, 27, 2011

Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Hubert Davis on Kentucky's 76-69 win over North Carolina.

Rapid Reaction: Kentucky 76, UNC 69

March, 27, 2011
NEWARK, N.J. -- A quick take on Kentucky's 76-69 win over North Carolina on Sunday at the Prudential Center:

What It Means: Kentucky, the No. 4 seed, wins the NCAA tournament East regional and advances to the Final Four by knocking off the No. 2 seed, North Carolina. For the Wildcats, its their first Final Four since 1998 -- ending the longest Final Four drought in the history of the program. The Cats had lost in the Elite Eight four times since then, including last season.

North Carolina fails to advance to the Final Four for what would've been a record-setting 19th time. The Tar Heels had faced the Wildcats twice before in the NCAA tournament -- both times in the Elite Eight -- and had won both times.

The Skinny: Kentucky dominated the first half of the game. After falling behind 4-2, the Wildcats were the much better team -- leading by as many as eight, which was the halftime margin, 38-30. Kentucky's swarming defense held North North Carolina to 36.7 percent shooting (11-for-30), and power forward John Henson picked up his third foul with 6:39 left before intermission. On offense, UK did not slow it down against the run-and-gun Tar Heels, as many expected it would. Instead, the Wildcats looked to attack on the fast break, and did so effectively. They also drained six of their 11 first-half 3-point attempts.

It took Kentucky almost three minutes to score its first point of the second half, but once it did, it jumped out to its largest lead of the game, 47-36, with 16;02 left. North Carolina kept making comeback runs, and Kentucky kept answering the bell. The Tar Heels actually tied it up at 67 with 3:18 remaining on a pair of Tyler Zeller free throws -- but they were never able to take the lead. A Brandon Knight trey with 2:51 remaining gave the 'Cats the lead for good, and the biggest shot of the game was a DeAndre Liggins trey with 35.6 seconds remaining that pushed a 70-69 lead to 73-69.

Star Watch: Knight -- who hit two game-winning shots in the first three games of this tournament, including on Friday night against Ohio State -- was the best player in this game, scoring 22 points, including five 3-pointers. Four other Kentucky players chipped in 12 or 11.

For North Carolina, Zeller had 21 and Harrison Barnes finished with 18, but Barnes really struggled with his shot.

Number Crunch: Kentucky made 12 of 22 3-pointers (54.5 percent) -- shooting even better from beyond the arc than they did inside of it (48.2). That was the difference in the game. North Carolina made just 3 of 16 from beyond the arc.

What's Next: Kentucky will play UConn -- the No. 3 seed from the West region -- on Saturday night in Houston, with a spot in this year's national championship game on the line. North Carolina heads home to Chapel Hill -- its season is over.

NEWARK, N.J. -- A quick look at the East Regional final:

No. 4 seed Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 2 seed North Carolina Tar Heels, 4:55 p.m. ET

Storyline: Kentucky and North Carolina -- two of the most storied programs in history, the aristocracy of basketball that rank first and third in the all-time win column -- meet with a berth in the Final Four on the line. North Carolina last made it to the final weekend in 2009, when Tyler Hansbrough took the Tar Heels to the national championship.

In between, though, UNC had a very un-UNC-like year, missing the NCAA tournament and settling for a run in the NIT.

“The older guys talk about that all the time, about playing in Starkville, Mississippi,’’ freshman Kendall Marshall said, referring to the Tar Heels’ second-round NIT game at Mississippi State. “Guys were talking about how they were in this old hotel, with twin beds, their feet dangling off. Now it’s four-star hotels and everyone wants to be your friend.’’

The drought is a little longer for Kentucky. It has been a Saharan stretch, by Lexington standards, of 13 years without a spot in the Final Four.

The Wildcats have made four regional finals since that 1998 run.

How they got here: North Carolina cruised past Long Island in the opener, survived a wacky finish against Washington and rolled easily past Marquette to reach the regional final. Kentucky’s path has been slightly more arduous.

The Wildcats twice needed Brandon Knight's late-game heroics: first against Princeton in Kentucky's opening round and then on Friday night to oust top-seeded Ohio State. In between, the Wildcats slipped past West Virginia.

Rich history: If there were a Mt. Rushmore of college hoops, the mascots for both of these teams would be on it.

There’s plenty to pull from the college basketball annals about these two programs. They rank in the top five in some of the most important NCAA records on file: most NCAA tournament appearances (UK first with 51, UNC second with 42); most tournament games (UK first with 149, UNC second with 144), most tournament wins (UNC first with 105, UK second with 104), most NCAA championships (UK second with 7, UNC fourth with 5), most NCAA Final Fours (UNC first with 18 and UK fourth with 13).

“Most of us up here weren’t here for many of those games,’’ John Calipari joked. “We got to 2,000 [wins] and I think we were here for nine of them. So this is at the point, yes the names on the front, Kentucky-Carolina, wow. The history of both these programs is wow. But I don’t think they are worried about that and I’m certainly not. I know they are going against terrific players and I’m going against a Hall of Famer. That’s what I know.’’

What to watch: Josh Harrellson's magical senior season continued against Ohio State, where he handled Jared Sullinger well enough to get Kentucky into the Elite Eight.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina's Tyler Zeller
Howard Smith/US PRESSWIRETyler Zeller has been a double-double machine for UNC lately.

Now he’s got another tall order, this one times two. Harrellson will have to handle both Tyler Zeller and John Henson, two guys who may lack the bulk of Sullinger but make up for it with their height.

The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding, averaging 42.5 boards per game and Zeller and Henson are responsible for much of that. Henson averages 10 boards a game to Zeller’s 7.1.

“Zeller is a 7-footer, so I have to just try and play big,’’ Harrellson said. “Like keep my hands high without fouling, keep him away from the basket, make him make hard catches and not get easy looks.’’

North Carolina’s first order of business will be containing the Kentucky backcourt. The Wildcats have players who are terrific at creating their own shots and can beat teams off the dribble. When the two teams met earlier this season, Larry Drew II handled Knight but he has since left the program.

Knight had 15 in that game.

“The truth is, we don’t know who we’re going to match up on him,’’ Williams said. “In the past, if the point guard was quicker, more of a penetrating point guard, we’ve made some switches and put Dexter [Strickland] on him and Kendall on the 2-man.’’

Who to watch: The Wildcats are going to need Harrellson to play big against the Carolina big men. They’re going to need Doron Lamb to knock down 3-pointers. But what they’re really going to need is for Knight to shepherd this team through what could be a quick-paced game.

The point guard has been terrific in keeping his team focused even when his own shots haven’t fallen -- a la Friday’s game against Ohio State. He’ll need to be all that, plus perhaps a scorer against the high-octane Heels.

Zeller was the difference when the two teams met earlier this season (he had a career-high 27) and needs to be again. The Tar Heels need to exploit their inside advantage with Zeller and Henson. Zeller has been sensational in this NCAA tournament and has averaged 27 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

Validation: Like a quarterback without a Super Bowl ring, a college coach without an NCAA championship is often viewed as lacking. For years Bill Self was known as the man who couldn’t get to the Final Four and Jim Boeheim was known as the coach who couldn’t win it all.

And now that both coaches have accomplished those feats, somehow all the questions and worries have disappeared.

Calipari will be coaching in his fifth regional final in the past six years Sunday night. Yet his resume lacks that final exclamation point.

Which means what, exactly?

“You can’t put that label on someone in my opinion,’’ said Roy Williams, who has two national title rings in his pocket. “I coached against a couple of guys that I thought were great coaches. Norm Stewart at Missouri never even made a Final Four and I thought he was a great coach. Gene Keady at Purdue, a great coach, never made the Final Four.’’

The difference now for Calipari, of course, is location, location, location.

At Memphis, he engineered a program back into national prominence. Now he’s at a university where there is but one standard of excellence -- a national title -- and anything less is failure.

“You put that ‘Kentucky’ on front and it changes things,’’ he said. “It makes it a little bit harder, a little more pressure-packed. Buildings are a little fuller. The kids are playing harder, jumping higher, making more shots than they normally make and you better be ready to ball. Coming to Kentucky is a man’s decision. You can’t be a boy here.’’

Of note: It’s a busy weekend for the Zeller family. Tyler Zeller scored 27 in the Tar Heels’ win against Marquette on Friday. Younger brother, Cody, played Saturday evening in Indiana’s 3A state championship. Tyler will be back in action on Sunday in the regional final and on Wednesday, it’s back to Cody, who is part of the McDonald’s All-American Game. … Knight and Marshall went against one another in the 2010 McDonald’s All-American Game. Knight drained a 3-pointer late in the game when Marshall tried to get a charge call. “I don’t know what I was thinking, trying to get a charge call in an all-star game,’’ Marshall said.

What they’re doing: It’s not easy to kill time when you’re not a starter or someone the media is clamoring to interview. Inside the Kentucky locker room, players curled up on the benches to catch a nap. The walk-ons in the Carolina locker room enjoyed a heated game of Catchphrase.

What they’re saying: “The one thing is we will not change anything on how we prepare for a team. Our players will not watch tape of North Carolina until the pregame meal. They will not get a scouting report. There will be a meeting in my room tonight, which will last 15 or 20 minutes. We’ll have an hour on the basketball court, where I will go through some of their stuff. I want them worrying about us. Let’s play our best. If that’s not good enough, it’s been a heckuva year.’’ -- Calipari on his team’s preparation.

“Last year was a horrible year, in my opinion, for my career, for my basketball livelihood. But I think what it’s done is made me realize that the things we had done previously were pretty doggone good. And I think it really made me appreciate how this team handled adversity. So it just made me appreciate this group of kids in a wonderful manner.’’ -- Williams on the challenges of last season.

Line of the day: “Does the NCAA only have two microphones? A $10 billion contract and they only have two microphones and no cookies back here." -- Williams during the team’s news conferences, where, yes, there were only two microphones to handle reporters’ questions. And no cookies.

NEWARK, N.J. -- Because they are creatures of habit and habitual studiers, UNC's Roy Williams and Kentucky's John Calipari will rewind the tape to Dec. 4.

They will watch intensely at film from the previous time their two teams played. They will look for tendencies and search for weaknesses to try to find any little edge that might give them an advantage.

But that tape might as well be a college basketball Zapruder film -- filled with unsatisfactory and inconclusive evidence.

Save one.

The same players who donned Kentucky and North Carolina uniforms three months ago will slip into their jerseys for the late afternoon tip in Sunday’s East Regional final. They will lace up their sneakers the same, go through their pregame rituals like always, and dance or chest bump their way through player introductions just like they did on that December afternoon.

[+] EnlargeKentucky Wildcats and North Carolina Tar Heels
Bob Donnan/US PresswireEven though the players are mostly the same, the rematch between North Carolina and Kentucky on Sunday will be very different.
And then the ball will go up and nothing will be the same.

The news has come this basketball season in rapid-fire staccato -- from Jimmer to Kemba to Butler, we’ve been inundated with the improbable. It makes it easy to overlook the subtle, to ignore the slow and steady transformation of two of the game’s name-brand programs.

Yet what Kentucky and North Carolina have done in a span of three months is no less remarkable and every bit as unlikely.

“Both teams are drastically different,’’ Williams said.

I was there for that first game in Chapel Hill. I saw Tyler Zeller's late-game heroics and came away thinking that, with a 75-73 victory, the Tar Heels had finally cured what ailed them. A team that looked so disjointed in both an NIT season a year before and a lackluster start to this season played great defense, stood tough and most importantly, played together.

I, like a lot of people, figured that it was the start of a season’s worth of good things for North Carolina.

Instead the nadir laid in wait, looming and lurking on a January day in Atlanta. It was there that the Tar Heels lost by 20 points to a lousy Georgia Tech team, their dysfunction laid bare for all to see.

“If you asked me then if I thought we’d have a chance at the Final Four, I would have told you I didn’t think we were getting in the tournament,’’ Zeller said.

I left Chapel Hill that same snowy afternoon impressed with Kentucky, even in defeat. Here was a team, with a median age barely old enough to vote, hanging tough in a hostile road environment.

That, too, ended up being little more than false hope. The Wildcats would win their final seven nonconference games before being hit with a serious case of road-a-phobia, losing six of their first seven road games in the SEC in the midst of a mediocre 7-6 start.

“We weren’t tough enough,’’ UK senior big man Josh Harrellson said. “We let a lot of games slip away from us in the late-game situation.’’

What has changed since that game and what happened to make the teams better?

Calipari will glean nothing from that December game tape as he tries to prepare for what makes the Tar Heels tick now.

[+] EnlargeJosh Harrellson
AP Photo/Julio CortezJosh Harrellson says Kentucky is much tougher now than when they faced UNC in December.
Carolina’s most important player barely got on the floor in that first game.

Kendall Marshall logged only 10 minutes, stuck behind Larry Drew II as a backup point guard at the time. The 10 minutes weren’t exactly stellar, either. Marshall had zero points, three turnovers and two fouls.

It took another month-plus before Williams would make the most critical personnel move of the season: inserting Marshall into the starting lineup. The decision would cost Williams his original starter -- Drew transferred out not long after -- but he managed to salvage the season.

North Carolina is 17-2 with Marshall as its starting point guard, losing only to Duke.

“I don’t think it was me that made some magical change for this team,’’ Marshall said. “I think it was all of us. We all bought in.’’

Kentucky’s changes were more subtle. The players remain the same. The rotation hasn’t changed. But there is a new sense of self and purpose.

In December, Calipari spent more time teaching his team how to box than to play basketball. Convinced they weren’t tough enough -- and worse, they didn’t know what tough was -- he laced them into boxing gloves and hung heavy bags for them to punch. He tried to teach them what sort of ferocity they sorely lacked.

“I liked this team from the beginning, but there was a time where I believed in the guys more than they believed in themselves,’’ Calipari said.

If there is a personnel change worth noting, it is the one in the middle. When Kentucky played North Carolina that first time, it was less than a month after the NCAA ruled big man Enes Kanter permanently ineligible.

Kanter never played a minute for the Wildcats and so his stature only grew to mythical proportions around the commonwealth, making it impossible for Harrellson to live up to the task.

Today, the Missouri native is a steady presence for the Wildcats, a player so beloved he has made the unforgivable fashion faux pas of jorts-wearing somehow acceptable.

In that early game film, he’s a vampire. He doesn’t show up. Saddled with foul trouble, he played only 21 minutes, scoring just four points while Zeller and Henson went wild.

Two nights ago, he notched 17 points and snagged 10 rebounds against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger.

“He did this,’’ Calipari said. “It’s not what I have done. It’s not about me coaching him up. He did it. He changed.’’

And along the way, he brought Kentucky with him. This is a team that has grown up. They have turned their inability to win close games into an art form of gut-check game winners.

These aren’t your December Wildcats any more than they are your December Tar Heels.

Don’t believe it?

Just check the game film.

Elite Eight preview: VCU vs. Kansas

March, 27, 2011

SAN ANTONIO -- A quick preview of the Southwest Regional final: Virginia Commonwealth vs. Kansas:

No. 11 seed VCU Rams vs. No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks, 2:20 p.m. ET (CBS)

What to watch: The glass. Kansas is a brutally effective rebounding team, with a plus-7.9 advantage on the backboard this season. VCU is a minus-3.6. Friday night might have portended what Sunday has in store. In the blowout of Richmond, the Jayhawks were a plus-eight. The same night, VCU was crushed on the glass by Florida State, 47-32.

VCU fully understands how important that area of the game will be. Point guard Joey Rodriguez said that at a Saturday team meeting, some of the Rams’ big men were called out by their teammates for a lack of production on the glass against the Seminoles.

The Jayhawks also were able to intimidate the Spiders, starting with trash talk the day before the game and escalating it to a pregame shoving match in the tunnel leading to the court. Richmond acted unnerved when the game began and promptly fell behind by 22 points. VCU might be a bit outmanned, but it probably won’t be unnerved.

“They kind of bullied [Richmond],” Rodriguez said. “We can’t let that happen to us. I don’t think we will. We’ve got a different set of guys, a lot of tough guys.”

Who to watch: For Virginia Commonwealth, wing Bradford Burgess. He failed to make any of the three CAA all-conference teams, and was insulted by that. Since then, he’s played like a guy who should have been a first-teamer. He’s averaged 17.5 points, 7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the NCAA tourney, and he’s made 9 of his past 11 3-pointers. If VCU is going to have a shot in this game, it will probably need another hot shooting hand from Burgess. Continued aggressiveness would be welcome, too; coach Shaka Smart said he believes Burgess doesn’t shoot enough.

For Kansas, the play of the power triumvirate of Marcus and Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson off the bench will be central to the outcome. Nobody feeds the post more resolutely than the Jayhawks, usually with great results -- that’s why the Morris twins are combining to average 30.7 points, with Robinson contributing 7.8 off the bench. Friday night the three produced a total of 30 points and 27 rebounds. They will present a major challenge for the vulnerable VCU interior.

VCU wins if: If the Rams maintain their preternatural confidence and poise, both of which flow freely from their coach. And if Rodriguez is able to get the Rams into some productive half-court action -- the VCU senior has a tourney-leading 33 assists and six turnovers this tourney. And if they’re able to score enough from 3-point range to offset whatever they give up in the paint. And if they’re able to produce some turnovers and transition baskets before Kansas can set up its defense. And, if all that fails, if they can find a little leftover pixie dust, the likes of which it used to sneak past Florida State by a point Friday.

Kansas wins if: Once again, the Jayhawks should be in great shape if they merely play up to their capabilities. They slapped 11 minutes of dazzling basketball on Richmond on Friday, and it led to a blowout victory. Through three games, KU has not been seriously challenged, winning each by at least 14 points. If the Jayhawks shoot a solid percentage and don’t give up a boatload of 3s, this one should be similar. The interesting question will be how they respond if VCU hangs around until late.

What they’re saying: “We don’t want to bully nobody. But that’s good if that’s what they think we’re going to do.” -- KU’s Markieff Morris, on whether VCU is preparing for intimidation tactics from Kansas.

“We’ve been watching them our whole lives on TV. They’re a great program, but they wake up and put their shorts on the same way we do.” -- Rodriguez on the Jayhawks.

“We’re at Kansas. Kansas is never an underdog. We have always been Goliath, all the time. We just have to embrace that role.” -- Marcus Morris on being the heavy favorite.

“I probably would say something slick like, ‘Nice prediction.’ But I wouldn’t say anything rude.” -- VCU’s Jamie Skeen, if he had the chance to discuss the Rams’ tournament success with those who said they shouldn’t have been included in the field.

Noteworthy: VCU players were tickled early Saturday morning to receive pictures from home in Richmond, Va., where students had flooded into Broad Street and closed it down to through traffic. “We have the whole city on our back now,” Rodriguez said. … Kansas has trailed for a total of 3 minutes and 29 seconds in 120 minutes of NCAA tourney play. It has led for every second of its 60 minutes of second-half play. ... With Butler's victory Saturday, KU has a chance to reach the national title without having played a team seeded seventh or better.

VCU, Kansas know this story well

March, 27, 2011
SAN ANTONIO -- With a few minor alterations to the plot, history is repeating itself here this weekend.

Virginia Commonwealth is the modern version of George Mason, 2006: a No. 11 seed from the Colonial Athletic Association that barely squeezed into the NCAA tournament, amid protest from the punditry. Now, after a startling run of upsets, the Rams face a seemingly unconquerable No. 1 seed for the right to go to the Final Four.

Kansas is the modern version of itself, 2008: a No. 1 seed blessed with a broken bracket and three mismatches on its way to a regional final date with a seemingly overmatched Cinderella.

Mason shocked the world in the '06 Elite Eight, beating Connecticut in double overtime to advance to the Final Four. It was the biggest underdog story in decades in college basketball.

Kansas survived its '08 regional final against No. 10 seed Davidson, 59-57, advancing to the Final Four here in San Antonio and winning its first national title in 20 years.

Sunday, the plotline ends for one of the two and continues for the other. Because they both can't win. But they both can recognize the similarities and draw from them.

Click here for the full story.

Bulldogs again find their will to win

March, 26, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- The familiar refrain after Gordon Hayward’s missed half-court shot in last year’s national championship loss to Duke was this: What if the shot had gone down?

Hayward would have been an iconic figure in the sport, owner of the most dramatic basket in the history of the NCAA tournament.

Over the past year, the follow-up question would have been: How much would it have changed the sport if a team from the Horizon League had won the national championship by beating a Hall of Fame coach and a team from basketball royalty?

Well, the shot didn’t go in. Duke won. Hayward is in the NBA. But Butler still changed the sport.

[+] EnlargeRonald Nored and Matt Howard
Chuck Cook/US PresswireRonald Nored and Matt Howard led Butler to another win and advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row.
The Bulldogs paved a path to get back by developing a will that once again propelled them throughout this tournament.

Butler is back in the Final Four after imposing its will in a 74-71 overtime win over Florida on Saturday afternoon.

“Last year in Salt Lake [site of the 2010 West Regional], it was almost like a ride you never dreamed of being on and we relished every moment,’’ said coach Brad Stevens, who is 10-3 in the NCAA tournament in just four short seasons as Butler's coach. “But this team has been so businesslike.’’

Butler had to earn this trip more so than a year ago, when it won 24 straight games going into the Final Four. The Bulldogs lost three straight in the middle of conference play, even falling to lowly Youngstown State on the road. Butler lost five league games, ended in a three-way tie for first and had to win the conference tournament title on the road at Milwaukee.

“There was turmoil that we had to go through after falling pretty down in January and early February,’’ said Butler junior guard Ronald Nored. “We had to earn this. It was tougher than last year.’’

Against No. 9 seed Old Dominion, Butler had to win on a last-second layup by Matt Howard. An inexplicable foul at the end of the second half allowed the Bulldogs to barely eke past top-seeded Pitt.

“We were lucky to beat Old Dominion,’’ Stevens said. “They could be sitting here. Pittsburgh could be sitting here. There’s no doubt that they were great teams. That’s the tournament. It doesn’t matter how you win, you just try to play the next one and hope you get a chance to play the next one.’’

The Florida game Saturday couldn’t have gone worse for Butler early on. The Gators sprinkled in a zone with their man defense and it perplexed Butler. Florida built an 11-point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the game and the Gators looked the part of the more experienced NCAA team, en route to its fourth Final Four under Billy Donovan.

“We got them to take shots out of character for them,’’ Donovan said. “But then they found a way to come down and get another possession. The difference in the game was those 50-50 balls in the last 10 minutes of regulation.’’

They’re called winning plays. Butler has made them for the past few years under Stevens, and to some extent long before that under Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter. Over the past decade and more, those coaches have made this one of the most consistent programs in the country.

“When you get to this point in the season, and I had this with [Joakim] Noah, [Al] Horford and [Corey] Brewer and those guys, there is an internal will and I thought then that our internal will was terrific,’’ Donovan said of the Gators' consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. “I thought [Butler's] internal will, coming down with those loose balls, being quicker in reacting, they just got it. They made plays. Their will at that point in time and their refusal to be denied speaks to something. I thought it stood out. I thought our guys were terrific in that, but maybe not as good as they were.’’

The Bulldogs chipped away at that 11-point lead with plays like the gritty layup from Howard on a putback, a 3-pointer from seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins -- who had played in only 18 previous games and didn’t play against ODU or Pitt -- and a 3-pointer by Shawn Vanzant. The play inside late and the rebounds Butler pulled down after being dominated all game by Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin turned out to be the difference. After being outscored 32-14 in the paint at the point of their 11-point deficit, the Bulldogs went on to outscore UF 14-4 down low the rest of the way. Oh, and don't forget the fouls Nored and Shelvin Mack drew.

“What defines this Butler group was the unselfishness of Ron Nored not starting after starting during the national championship game and guarding [Ervin] Walker as tough as he possibly could and Shawn Vanzant tipping plays and Khyle Marshall and our young guys starting to figure this out,’’ Stevens said.

The Bulldogs head to Houston not as underdogs, but as established members of an elite class. Michigan State went to consecutive Final Fours in 2009 and '10. Florida did it in 2006 and '07. The last mid-major school to make consecutive appearances was UNLV in 1990 and '91.

“I know this: Somebody is going to have to beat us because of our will,’’ Stevens said.

If Hayward’s shot had gone down, Butler would forever be known as the underdog that pulled off the impossible and won a title. Now that the Bulldogs are back on the sport’s greatest stage, the headlines should read differently.

This program, this team, this school, belongs here now. Butler has earned it.

Video: Butler-Florida postgame reaction

March, 26, 2011

Brad Stevens, Billy Donovan and Chandler Parsons talk about Butler's overtime win over Florida.

Rapid Reaction: Connecticut 65, Arizona 63

March, 26, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Connecticut advanced to the Final Four after hanging onto a 65-63 win that went down to the final possession, with Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne missing 3-point attempts in the final seconds. The Huskies were led by Kemba Walker's 20 points, and freshman Jeremy Lamb's 19. Williams was limited to seven first-half minutes due to foul trouble, but he finished with 20 points. The Wildcats also got a big game out of Jesse Perry, who had 14 points.

Turning point: Arizona clawed its way back into the game and took a 55-52 lead, but UConn proceeded to go on a 10-0 run with Lamb leading the way. He scored six of those points, stealing the ball and going in for the dunk to give the Huskies a 62-55 advantage.

Key player: Walker, the MVP of the West region, came through when it counted most. He hit a jump shot over the outstretched arms of Williams to give UConn a 65-60 lead with 1:15 left. Walker didn't have his best shooting day (7-for-17), but had seven assists and forced a late turnover.

Key stats: Lamb got involved in the offense and came through with 19 points, his ninth double-digit effort during UConn's current 9-0 postseason streak. He also hit two 3-pointers, had two steals and didn't turn the ball over once. ... On the flip side, Arizona -- a team that led the Pac-10 in 3-point shooting (40.3 percent) -- shot a season-worst 19 percent from long range (4-of-21).

Miscellaneous: Arizona rallied, but was limited in what it could do after Williams picked up three fouls after just seven minutes in the first half. The Wildcats were leading by 10 when he picked up his second foul, and ended up trailing at the half by seven after a 22-7 UConn run. Williams scored 14 second-half points, but you have to wonder what would have been had the fouls not gotten in his way. ... Walker is now averaging 26.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 6.8 apg in this NCAA tournament. Only two other players (Michigan's Gary Grant and Ohio State's Dennis Hopson, both in 1987) have played at least two games and averaged 25 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds in a single NCAA tourney. ... Connecticut advances to its fourth Final Four. All four times the Huskies have come out of the West region. ... UConn is 12-0 in tournament games this season (3-0 Maui, 5-0 Big East, 4-0 NCAAs)

What’s next: UConn moves on to play in Houston against the winner of the East Regional final between North Carolina and Kentucky.

NEW ORLEANS -- The Bulldogs are going back to the Final Four for a second consecutive season after a dramatic 74-71 overtime victory over Florida Saturday at the New Orleans Arena.

Butler knocked off Old Dominion on a last-second shot. They beat Pitt after multiple mental errors forced a final-possession win over the top seed in the region. They outlasted Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 before taking down the No. 2 seed Gators in the final seconds of overtime.

The Bulldogs were down 11 midway through the second half, climbed back into a tie at the end of regulation and then made the winning plays to capture the victory.

Butler is the first team outside the power-six conferences since UNLV in 1990-91 to make consecutive appearances in the Final Four. The Bulldogs are also team to make back-to-back Final Four trips and not be seeded first or second either time. And not to be forgotten, 34-year-old Brad Stevens is the first coach to ever make his second Final Four before the age of 35. Remarkable.

Butler played most of the overtime without Andrew Smith, who fouled out 18 seconds into the extra period. But it didn’t make as much of a difference on the backboard as it appeared it might.

Matt Howard and Khyle Marshall made key buckets inside and the Bulldogs were able to negate a few big shots from the Gators. Florida's Kenny Boynton made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 67 but then Ronald Nored got fouled and made two free throws.

And then came a bang-bang, back-to-back 3-pointer display. Erving Walker converted from beyond, the arc but Shelvin Mack, the Southeast Regional MVP, answered with his own 3 to take a two-point lead.

The Gators had a chance, though. Both Boynton and Walker missed 3s in the final eight seconds of the game, capping off a 3-for-15 long-range performance by Florida. Butler eventually got the rebound and ran out the clock.

Star of the game: Mack led all scorers with 27 points, including five in OT. Honorable mention goes to freshman Kyhle Marshall, who not only made 4-of-6 shots for 10 points, but also collected a career-high seven offensive rebounds.

Overlooked player: The game Vernon Macklin had for Florida was stellar as he scored 25 and was 11-of-14 from the field.

Coaching key move: Billy Donovan using zone quite a bit played a huge role in the tightness of this game. He kept Butler off-balance for most of the game.

End-of-regulation impressions: Butler actually had a real shot to win this game before overtime had it not been for its poor free throw shooting. Howard missed the back end of a two-shot foul. Had he made the second shot, Walker and the Gators possibly would have handled the final possession. Instead, it was a tie game and Walker -- 0-for-8 from the field at the time -- waited until the final seconds to launch a 3-pointer that was no good. ... Butler missed 10 of 20 free throws while Florida made 13 of 14 during the game. ... The 3s from Shawn Vanzant and a rare cameo from Chrishawn Hopkins helped spur the Butler 11-point comeback late in the second half. ... Alex Tyus and Macklin played some of their best basketball to exploit a weak Butler inside game. But it wasn’t enough to offset Butler’s late strong guard play and work driving inside by Howard.

First-half impressions: Florida should have been up by more than a point heading into the break. The Gators tried as much as possible to use Macklin's size advantage. But there were still too many empty possessions. Macklin dominated with 7-of-9 for 15 points. Foul problems for Howard (two) made him less effective during his 15 minutes. ... Had it not been for Mack making shots early (14 points), the occasional Zach Hahn 3-pointer (two), and the offensive rebounding for Marshall (3 of 3 in the game) the Bulldogs would have been down double-figures. ... Florida did the best job it has all season in the halfcourt defense. The Gators switched up their defense with a 2-3 zone and into man within the possession and the Bulldogs had to go down to the end of the shot clock quite a bit.

What's next: Butler, winner of 13 straight, returns to the Final Four and will face the winner of Sunday's matchup between VCU and Kansas. The Gators go back to Gainesville and finish the season with a 29-8 record.

Video: Vitale, Bilas pick Saturday games

March, 26, 2011

Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas make their predictions for Butler-Florida and Arizona-Connecticut.

Elite Eight preview: Arizona vs. Connecticut

March, 26, 2011

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A look at the Huskies-Wildcats matchup at the Honda Center in Anaheim:

No. 5 seed Arizona (30-7) vs. No. 3 seed Connecticut (29-9), 7:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

How they got here: Behind a huge 36-point performance from Kemba Walker, UConn was able to knock off San Diego State 74-67 to get to this game. Walker continued to show he is one of the nation’s great scorers and big-game players by scoring at will. He also had help, as freshman Jeremy Lamb scored 24 points to help beat the second-seeded Aztecs. Arizona also got a big game out of its star player, with Derrick Williams going off for 32 points and 13 rebounds in a 93-77 trouncing of defending national champion Duke. Williams scored 25 of those points in the first half, and the Wildcats played their best basketball of the season by scoring 55 points and decimating the Blue Devils’ defense after halftime.

Storyline: The two programs have proud histories, combining for 18 Elite Eights, seven Final Fours and three national championships. Yet they've somehow never met in the NCAA tournament. They have played four times in the regular season, though, and UConn has won each of the meetings, including the last one -- a 79-70 victory in the 2005 Maui Invitational.

This one will be a star-studded affair, and the winner will celebrate a Final Four berth along with the satisfaction that rebuilding projects don’t have to take long after all.

Third-seeded UConn has had to deal with an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations that landed the program on probation. Last season, the Huskies lost 16 games and finished 7-11 in the Big East. But with a young roster and an explosive scorer in Walker, coach Jim Calhoun has the Huskies back within a win of the Final Four.

“We’re moving on to hopefully a Final Four, and we’ve had a fabulous year, and we would love to get to the Final Four,” Calhoun said.

Fifth-seeded Arizona has upset Texas and Duke on its way to the Elite Eight. Coach Sean Miller has done wonders putting together, and developing, a roster that has quickly matured. Williams has emerged as one of the nation’s most dominant forces and clutch players, and the Wildcats are peaking at the right time after running the defending champs off the court by scoring the most points of any Duke tourney opponent in 14 years.

“I’m sure on UConn’s end, that would be the team that they don’t want to see because that’s probably the best that we’ve played,” Miller said.

Players to watch: Walker called Williams the best player he’s seen this season before Calhoun corrected him. “He’s a terrific player, and I would have to disagree with Kemba for once,” Calhoun said of Williams. “I think he is probably the second-best player in America.”

Of course, Calhoun likes his own guy very much. Since helping the Huskies win five games in five days at the Big East tournament, Walker has remained hot in the NCAA tourney and has surpassed the 30-point total in his past two games. It will be an interesting matchup watching Walker go up against his friend and former New York City high school teammate Lamont "MoMo" Jones.

“I think our guys really understand the focus and the energy that it takes to do the best job you can against a player like him,” said Miller, who likes that the Wildcats have experience playing against Washington’s Isaiah Thomas.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Williams
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelIn his last four games, Derrick Williams is averaging 23.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. He also has two game-saving plays in the final seconds.
Williams, while conceding that Walker would make his share of shots, emphasized that crashing the boards would be a key to winning the game. “It’s really just about getting defensive rebounds and whenever those guys miss just make sure we get the rebound,” he said.

For UConn, it will have to contain Williams not only on the glass, but also from making game-changing plays. “He’s definitely a great player and the key to that team,“ Huskies big man Alex Oriakhi said. “If we can do a good job of keeping him off the boards, I think we’re going to make it tough on them.”

What to look for: Arizona’s rotation is deep and really showed up against Texas and Duke. Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry, along with reserves like Jamelle Horne, Kevin Parrom and Brendon Lavender, have given solid rebounding performances in the tournament. “Bottom line, the diversity and the flexibility of their team in many ways gives you grave concerns,” Calhoun said.

UConn is a young team growing up right in front of the nation. Sophomore Oriakhi and freshman Roscoe Smith showed they can control the boards. And Lamb, also only a freshman, is coming off a 24-point performance and has scored in double-figures for eight games in a row. “He’s playing with great confidence, shooting the ball at a very high level,” Miller said.

Arizona doesn’t just consist of Williams, and the same goes for UConn and Walker. The game could very well come down to which team’s complementary players step forward.