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Butler, VCU products of weak tournament field

Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:03

Virginia Commonwealth and Butler will face each other Saturday in perhaps the most unlikely Final Four matchup of all time. The teams are No. 11 and No. 8 seeds, respectively, and both hail from mid-major conferences. Yes, they are talented, but few thought even one of them would reach Houston, let alone both.

But in hindsight, is it all that surprising? All season there has been talk about the relatively weak field. Analysts said there is no true powerhouse and this tournament is up for the taking. Those prophecies have been realized for the Bulldogs and the Rams, thanks to a weakened slate of traditional powers in major conferences.

Butler and VCU are not tournament strangers, but this season's run is simply unprecedented. Although their stories are great, both teams needed a little help from a weak field.

Just three weeks ago, Virginia Commonwealth was a team surrounded by disdain. The Rams received one of the final at-large bids, despite an unimpressive résumé and failing to win the Colonial Athletic Association regular season or tournament title. College basketball critics were outraged that the Rams received a bid and teams such as Colorado did not. Needless to say, VCU was not given much of a shot.

Of course, the Big Dance rarely follows script. VCU has been the greatest giant-killer of them all and has reached the Final Four having to play an extra game (the first-round play-in win over USC). Not only has VCU defeated supposed powers Kansas, Georgetown and Purdue, but it has also beaten their opponents by an average of 12 points per game. Upset runs occur, but never has a team that appeared to be undeserving of a bid consistently whipped programs hailing from major conferences.

Butler's run has been just as unpredictable, but much less surprising, considering the Horizon League champs were here last season. Only its win over Wisconsin was not decided on the final possession, and its first two victories over Old Dominion and Pittsburgh came on last-second shots.

Their runs are impressive, but let's face it: Butler and VCU would not be here if the traditional powerhouses were not so weak this season. Five or 10 years ago, both teams might have stolen a first-round game, but any run similar to their current ones would have been unthinkable. Today, the playing field is much more level.

The tournament field was stronger just a season ago, and Butler was still inches away from defeating Duke in the title game. Butler was a better team last season, but now it is one game away from another shot at the championship.

Strangest of all is that one of these two teams is guaranteed to make the title game. The tournament has played out in such a way that the Final Four games act as mid-major and major conference championships.

And if the VCU-Butler winner defeats the Kentucky-Connecticut victor, will anyone be surprised?

It can be argued that both Butler and VCU have disposed of teams better than their potential final opponents. Kentucky is the most talented team in the field, but that was the case a season ago when a similarly young team failed to live up to expectations. This Wildcat squad has surpassed predictions, but youth will still be an issue.

Connecticut is riding a nine-game winning streak and has the tournament's best player in junior guard Kemba Walker, but his supporting cast is also young and inexperienced.

Both Kentucky and Connecticut are more talented and athletic than Butler or VCU, but those odds have not derailed the mid-majors yet. It's hard to argue the Florida team Butler defeated wasn't as athletic as Kentucky, or that the Kansas team VCU trounced was not as complete as Connecticut.

Although weakness in the major conferences is probably not a good thing, it does make for exciting tournaments. This fact has presented itself in consecutive tournaments, and this year we are again guaranteed a major versus mid-major championship.

But whatever the outcome April 4, don't be surprised. Both Kentucky and Connecticut will be hard-pressed to blow out their championship opponent, whichever team advances. So when it comes to Butler and VCU, throw out all conventional wisdom. The name on players' chests does not have the meaning it used to. Big East versus Colonial is no longer a David versus Goliath situation.

This weekend, the Davids and Goliaths will be playing as equals.

j.bullinger@chronicle.utah.edu

 

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