For this sports fan, few events offer a prolonged and sustained period of sports enjoyment than the NCAA Men’s Championship Basketball Tournament, affectionately referred to as “March Madness.” As exciting as this annual pilgrimage through the brackets is, we usually find ourselves starting at fearsome foursome of at or near top seeds during the Final Four weekend. Not so in 2011. Salute the infiltration of the Mid-Majors to the Final Four.
This weekend’s games are comprised of the #4 seed Kentucky Wildcats playing the #3 seed Connecticut Huskies (Saturday, 6:09PM EST) and the #11 Virginia Commonwealth Rams playing the #8 Butler Bulldogs. When I watch the tournament every year, after rooting for my local interests, I secondarily have a secret crush on the underdogs. Yeah, I’m telling you that my ultimate wish would be to see four #16 seeds make it to the Final Four and set the bracket right on its ear.
The Butler Bulldogs Come Home; or Tom Izzo is as Constant as the Northern Star (When it comes to the Tournament); or Duke’s Back; or Is it Huggins’ Time? Either of these headlines would work when describing this year’s Final Four teams. To say this was an unexpected group is an understatement.
A lot of people expected Duke — the only number one seed to make it this far — to get beat in the earlier rounds by teams like Louisville or Baylor, while Butler is still shedding its “mid-major” label. West Virginia looks legitimate, but their lack of offensive pop — they’ve notoriously struggled to score in both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments — makes their appearance a little surprising. As for Michigan State, even with Tom Izzo as coach, the fact the Spartans lost their best player in Kalin Lucas to a hamstring injury makes them a surprise team as well.
Considering these teams, the hype surrounding the 2010 Final Four may not be as big as previous seasons, but don’t tell any of the attending teams that. I seriously doubt Duke or Butler care about whether or not they were popular picks. Furthermore, I also doubt any of Bob Huggins’ players doubt they belong, strictly because of how clutch the Mountaineers have been, not to mention how good they’ve been defensively. As for Michigan State, well, they have Tom Izzo, and that alone makes them a threat for a deep tournament run, whether non-Spartans fans are tired of seeing them there or not.
This is your Final Four, and while they may not be the most popular teams out there, each and every one of them deserve to be there. Nothing was handed to any of the teams. They all had to earn their trip, something the average victory margin of 5.5 points for all of the Elite Eight games indicates nicely.
With all that in mind, who ya got?
Are you siding with Butler and their awesome story, or do you want to see Izzo win his second title? Can Duke solve West Virginia’s stifling 1-3-1 zone or will Duke take advantage of any Mountaineers scoring droughts? These are just some of the stories to pay attention to as we get ready for another weekend of tournament basketball.
Two more teams got their tickets to the Big Dance punched last night as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the Cleveland State Vikings both won their respective conference tournaments, securing the automatic bid. In the process of winning the Horizon League tournament, the Vikings damaged the tournament hopes of 17th-ranked Butler — one of the perennial mid-major darlings. Because Butler did not secure the automatic bid, they have to rely on the an at-large bid. However, considering the apathetic resumes of most bubble teams, Butler could very will make the big tournament.
To Cleveland State, however, go the well-deserved spoils. Thanks to last night’s win, they will be dancing for the first time in 23 years. As to be expected, the CSU athletic department is awfully ecstatic about their big win. Why else would someone make a lead graphic measure 7200px × 5400px (the original size of the image)?
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are also going to the dance — again — after winning the Sun Belt tournament. We all remember the kind of excitement the Toppers brought with them last March:
Yes, the NBA plays basketball at a much higher level. We know this as fact. Unfortunately, a lot of the passion that goes along with playing doesn’t surface until the playoffs. Sure, an exciting play or eye-opening dunk will get teammates off the bench, jumping up and down, but that still pales in comparison to a game-winning shot in college basketball.
Just ask the Butler Bulldogs, who escaped Cleveland State, 50-48, thanks to a three-point buzzer beater from Zach Hahn. You can tell by the way he was mobbed by his teammates just how much the game meant to the Bulldogs. Conversely, you can imagine Cleveland State’s reaction being the exact opposite of Butler’s elation.
Just think, we have over three more months of this kind of excitement — and hey, this sport actually decides their National Championship by using a tournament and everything. How very novel.
You just have to know folks connected to the universities of Florida and Syracuse (and other bubble teams) have been watching the mid-major basketball tournaments with a sense of trepidation, wondering if one of these smaller schools would knock them out of the running for a invitation to the Big Dance.
Well, you can add Sun Belt Tournament champ Western Kentucky to the list of schools who could potentially relegate teams like the Gators and the Orange from the Big Dance to the NIT. By dispatching the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State, 67-57, the 27-6 Hilltoppers, themselves a bubble team, secured their invitation to the NCAA Tournament. In the process, the Hilltoppers may have made the Sun Belt a two-bid conference if 26-6 South Alabama gets the Big Dance nod over the aforementioned bubble teams.
While South Alabama is just as deserving, in all likelihood, the Western Kentucky win simply switched the two teams in the eyes of the Selection Committee. Western obviously has the automatic bid, and the Jaguars will probably join the Floridas of the world, leaving their fate in the hands of an at-large bid.
As for last night’s game, Darrin Horn’s team bounced MTSU by riding the tough-as-nails performance of Jeremy Evans. Evans finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, a great time to get the first double-double for the 2007-08 Hilltoppers.
In other automatic bid action last night, Oral Roberts beat IUPUI, 71-64. Butler, a perennial tournament Cinderella, won the Horizon League championship by beating Cleveland State, 70-55.