It seems like it was only yesterday that the NCAA Tournament was set to get underway, with 65 of college basketball’s best teams brimming with confidence, and hoping that they would be the last team standing in Indianapolis on April 4.
Well, after two weeks of some of the most exciting hoops action in recent memory, we’ve whittled those 65 teams down to just four, as we’re just a few days from tipping off the Final Four from Indianapolis on Saturday.
So how did we get here? Let’s take a look back at the best and brightest from this past weekend, while also looking ahead at the four teams that will be vying for this year’s National Championship.
Best Game: Xavier-Kansas State, Sweet 16, Thursday:
While the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament had more good games than you could count, the second weekend had one that stood taller than all others: Thursday night’s Sweet 16 West Regional game between Xavier and Kansas State.
For those who missed it, this game had everything this tournament is supposed to be about. Two teams doing whatever it took to win. Star players stepping up and making great plays. Buzzer beaters. Defensive stands. Great coaching. Oh, and by the way, the best announcer in the game – Gus Johnson – was courtside to call the action for us.
Most importantly, this game showed exactly what makes this tournament so great. The NCAA Tournament isn’t a best of seven, but a best of one, meaning if you lose today, you go home tomorrow. And you saw that from these two teams.
Best Team: Butler
I tweeted this on Saturday afternoon, but it’s worth repeating: If you’d given me 50-1 odds on Butler making the Final Four before this weekend started, I wouldn’t have taken it. Maybe not even 100-1, after the Bulldogs barely got by Murray State in the second round.
Well, this past weekend, Butler looked like a totally different group. They were the best team in Salt Lake City, and proved it, by beating the No. 1 seed Syracuse Orange, and followed it up with an even better win over Kansas State to gain their Final Four spot.
What was maybe most impressive was how Butler got it done. On Thursday, the Bulldogs couldn’t have thrown the ball into the ocean, as they shot just 6 for 24 from three, and didn’t look comfortable on offense all evening long. But they stepped up defensively, forced 18 turnovers, and gutted out a win.
On Saturday, it was the exact opposite. Sure their defense was good, but it was the offense that carried the team. They shot 46 percent from the field, and outrebounded the rugged K-State Wildcats 36 to 27.
Now they head back to their hometown of Indianapolis for the first Final Four in school history. We can only imagine what this team will be capable of with a home court advantage!
Best Player: Da’Sean Butler, West Virginia
Here’s the truth: If you don’t appreciate West Virginia superstar Da’Sean Butler, then you don’t appreciate the game of basketball.
The guy does everything. He scores (17.4 points a game). He rebounds (6.3 a game). He makes his foul shots (78 percent). He plays great defense. He dives on the floor for loose balls. He does everything for his team that a leader should do.
And in this NCAA Tournament he has saved his best for his biggest games, as it was his 18 points (including 4 of 8 from three) that led West Virginia to their shocking Elite Eight victory over Kentucky. Butler was the Mountaineers emotional leader, spiritual leader, and the leader in the box score, like any great player should be.
And now, West Virginia is going to their first Final Four since 1959. Who knows where they’d be without him.
Most Surprising Player: Lance Thomas, Duke
Look, it’s easy to rip the guys on Duke. Everybody does it. They’re America’s bad guys, a team that everyone seems to enjoy watching lose.
But to give the Blue Devils a little bit of credit, on Sunday, they did everything needed to win. They made open jumpers, played great defense, and made foul shots when they mattered.
Most of all though, they proved that yes, even they, the Duke Blue Devils, can get tough when needed. And against a rugged Baylor Bears front line, Lance Thomas stood out above all others.
Looking at the stat line, Thomas’ numbers might not jump right out at you. Seven points and nine rebounds is pretty ho-hum right?
But it was Thomas who made two of the biggest plays of the game, when on back-to-back possessions he got offensive rebounds, and kicked them out to Nolan Smith for two game-clinching 3-pointers. He also played a big chunk of his minutes in the middle alone, as center Brian Zoubek was out most of the game with foul trouble.
For all the talk about Duke’s “Big Three,” Smith, Jon Scheyer, and Singler, it was Thomas who was arguably the MVP of the game on Sunday. Duke survived a miserable night shooting from Singler (0-10 from the field). But they couldn’t have survived without Thomas.
The Storylines You’ll Be Hearing About All Final Four Week:
1. The Return of Coach K to the Final Four: Coach K is one of the best ever in his chosen profession. But he hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2004, an eternity in Duke basketball circles. Well, he’s back, with what he calls the “Closest team he’s ever had.” Can he get his first championship since 2001 as well?
2. Speaking of Coaches: Brad Stevens of Butler may have the best story of any coach this weekend. After graduating from DePauw University back in 1999, Stevens went into a corporate career in marketing, before deciding after just a few months that it wasn’t for him. He ultimately latched on at Butler, where he started as an unpaid volunteer assistant, sleeping on the floors of the office, before working his way up, and getting his break as a head coach just seven years later. Now he’s in his first Final Four.
Told you he had a good story!
3. Then There’s West Virginia’s Bob Huggins: While at Cincinnati Huggins was one of college basketball’s most controversial coaches, and left the Queen City after being forced out by school president Nancy Zimpher (Read the part about her and Huggins on Wikipedia. Fascinating stuff).
Of course for all the controversy, Huggins is also one of the sport’s biggest winners, and currently ranks fourth amongst all active coaches in wins, behind only Coach K, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. And since returning to his home state, and alma mater, he has quietly turned them into a National Championship contender. Huggins has been one of the best coaches in the game for year’s, but never seems to get the credit he deserves. Well that time has finally come.
4. The Final, Final Four Coach: Is Tom Izzo the best coach in college basketball? It’s hard to argue as this will be his sixth trip to the Final Four since 1999. Six! For comparison’s sake, this will be Coach K’s fourth trip in the same amount of time, with Jim Calhoun going to three and John Calipari just one in the last 12 years.
Told you it was hard to argue.
5. Butler’s Return Home: Despite the site of this year’s Final Four being just minutes from the Butler campus, Coach Brad Stevens refused to let his players talk about the possibility of playing there all season long. Well Coach, now that your team made it all the way back to Indianapolis, is it safe to talk about yet?
6. Nolan Smith’s Emotional Road to the Final Four: ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil did an excellent job of telling Duke guard Nolan Smith’s story, in an article published on Sunday. Smith’s father- who passed away in 1996- was a key player as part of Louisville’s run to the National Championship in 1980, in a Final Four played in Indianapolis. Can Smith win a title in the same city as his father 30 years later?