— HOUSTON - This isn’t just the Final Four any more. Since Sunday, when Virginia Commonwealth toppled mighty Kansas, the event has experienced expansion. Not in the number of teams, just the naming rights. It now is more commonly known as the Unlikely Final Four, or the Unexpected Final Four.
That’s what happens when a couple of mid-majors crash the party.
Butler and VCU meet in the “underdog undercard” Saturday. It’s hard to tell if that game will post TV ratings equal to “blueblood battle” between Connecticut and Kentucky, but two days before the semifinals will be played, there definitely was a different tone as the teams got their first look at Reliant Stadium.
When was the last time you heard one of the Final Four players discussing a sociology class from earlier this week? That actually happened Thursday when VCU senior Jamie Skeen was asked to describe the atmosphere on campus, back in Richmond.
“My teacher changed her whole lesson plan just so she could talk about basketball,” Skeen said. “She related everything to basketball in sociology. Of course, I was more interested and I answered almost every question. It’s just crazy if even the teachers are excited. It’s love, nothing but love on campus right now.”
The story of the Rams and how they got here is crazy, indeed. Eleven losses on the season. Six of them in the Colonial Athletic Association. A coach named Shaka who burns calendars to get his team to move on and play better. Then, of course, five victories in the NCAA tournament — the first team to do so — to reach the final weekend.
First Four to Final Four, as they say. That’s new ground too.
“I’m kind of a mutt,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said Thursday when asked what coaching tree he comes from. “My mom, Monica King, is the best coach I ever had. She taught me so much about coaching — indirectly — even though she’s never coached basketball or any sport.”
Smart, who will turn 34 next week, is too young to possess the Final Four paranoia gene found in the DNA of coaches like UConn’s Jim Calhoun or Kentucky’s John Calipari. During his Thursday interview session, Smart was passing out strategy like it was slices of pizza at the media’s mid-day buffet. If VCU is winning, Smart wants point guard Joey Rodriguez to have his hands on the ball, so a team can foul him and send him to the line to win the game. If VCU needs a basket at the end of a game, Smart turns to Skeen, the senior forward.
Smart stopped himself.
“Are these other coaches listening?” Smart asked.
They weren’t but they’ve probably watched enough video of the Rams that they could answer the questions for Smart. There are no secrets at this stage of the season.
“I expect a slow, methodical game,” Skeen said when asked about Butler’s game. “Watching them on film, they run out the whole shot clock. We’ve been playing really good defense, but we’ve just got to play for 35 seconds now.”
It’s a whole different ballgame on the other side. Finding a way to stop VCU’s variety of offensive options might be more complicated for Butler.
“There is no easy way to guard it,” Butler senior Matt Howard said. “It’s going to have to be our full defensive system. We have to limit easy looks. They have five guys that can shoot it from the floor. It makes it challenging to pinpoint something that you might want to rotate off of. I think that is one of the challenges we are going to have to work on and make some adjustments throughout the game.”
Smart has coined a style of play he refers to as Havoc. On offense, the goal is to create holes on the perimeter. VCU has made 30 more three-pointers (53-23) than its five tournament opponents. On defense, the Rams lead the nation in steals per turnover ratio.
“The first time I heard [Havoc offense] was when coach Smart said it in a press conference,” senior guard Brandon Rozzell said. “I Googled it and now it’s us. We shoot crazy shots. Havoc 2.0. That’s VCU.”
VCU led Kansas by 14 at halftime of Sunday's regional final, but Smart was in the locker room telling his players to keep pressuring the ball. He mentioned something about loose balls (point guard Joey Rodriguez wasn’t sure exactly what he said) and suddenly someone rolled a ball across the floor.
“Coach just dove on the ball in the middle of his speech,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t know what he was doing. He just keeps things loose.”
The Rams are beating their NCAA opponents by an average of 12 points. Butler, with that slowdown style and emphasis on defense, won its four tourney games so far by a combined total of 13 points.
The contrasts are crazy and so are the comparisons. The funny thing is VCU used Butler’s run to the national championship game last season as inspiration this season. The Bulldogs lost to Duke, but mid-major teams across the country celebrated the triumph of Butler going that far and almost winning on Gordon Hayward’s last-second shot from midcourt.
“For Butler to make the national championship game, it did a lot for teams coming into this year,” Rozzell said. “If one of us won the championship this year, it would open eyes nationwide. We just all love to compete in the game of basketball.
“I think Butler is at the same level as the other high-level games we have played. They play a tough schedule, just as tough a road as ours was. We are not overlooking them.”
Butler may make it back to the championship game for a second straight year. One thing is for sure, with this Totally Unexpected Final Four, either VCU or Butler will be playing Monday night.
And whomever gets there will have a shot at making history for the unlikely guys.
“I think that would be great for college basketball,” VCU’s Rodriguez said. “I was hoping last year that Butler would win the national championship. We were all in our rooms watching the games and cheering for them. It is kind of surreal we are here playing them in the Final Four - for a chance to play for the national championship.”
Surreal. Crazy. Maybe. But it’s a reality now.