Houston, we have a Final Four preview

After licking our wounds from bombing badly on our Tournament predictions, the IoT team took a bit of time out during a hectic week to reflect on how we got to tonight’s unusual Final Four.

Jimmy: Jeremy, this year’s NCAA Tournament is forcing all of us to rethink some things that seemed pretty certain a few weeks ago: the strength of the Big East and the competitive distance between the majors and mid-major, to name two.

I think Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth may be challenging fundamental ideas about the effect of fatigue on tournament teams. There’s been a school of thought in bracket-building that says to avoid teams coming off grueling, four-game conference tournament apperances. Some coaches, Roy Williams, for instance, have a reputation for easing up during conference tournaments to save their teams for the NCAAs. I think we’ve all been burned by the team that “gets hot at the right time” by winning several conference tourney games, only to flame out in the first round of the Big Dance.

And then along come UConn and Virginia Commonwealth, who have taken the longest Final Four paths in history. The Huskies played — and won — nine games in 18 days. That’s a month’s worth of competition in a little more than two weeks. UConn’s ability to play at such a high level so often is even more impressive when you consider how much the Huskies lean on one player, Kemba Walker. He’s playing 38 minutes a game over that period and has scored more than a third of UConn’s postseason points.

Just to give Walker his due, here’s his stat line for the last nine games:

Min/gm Pts/gm Asst/gm Reb/gm Stl/gm
Kemba Walker 38.2 26.3 5.3 5.9 2.2

He’s also shooting better from the field and the line than he did during the regular season, and getting 10 free-throw attempts per game. If the tournament ended right now, he’d easily be your most outstanding player.

VCU, meanwhile, has won more March Madness games than any national semifinalist in history. The Rams are the first play-in team to reach the Final Four since the NCAA began handing out fake tournament berths in 2001. I’m wondering if we should rethink our stance on the “First Four” — it may be a bad idea, but there’s no denying that the extra NCAA tournament game makes VCU’s achievement that much richer.

Jeremy, are UConn and VCU’s performances cause for fundamentally rethinking the role of fatigue in tournament performance? Or are we just looking at two very special teams?

Jeremy: Jimmy, what we’re looking at has been a fundamentally screwy NCAA Tournament.

Not to diminish UConn’s or VCU’s feats of endurance (especially UConn’s), but fatigue really shouldn’t have been a factor for either team once they got to the second weekend of the Tournament. And honestly, I’m not sure how big of a deal it was on the first weekend.

Don’t get me wrong. UConn winning five games in five days to take the Big East Tournament title was one of the more amazing accomplishments in college basketball history. I’m also sure they could have used another day or two off before their first game. But the Huskies got nearly five days to rest before playing Bucknell in their opener, and that wasn’t exactly a challenge.

In fact, I’d say UConn benefited in terms of rest from their seeding and draw. Before they won the Big East, the Huskies were projected in at least one bracket as a 5 seed. By getting upgraded to a 3 seed, they got an easier opener. I suspect their familiarity with fellow Big East team Cincinnati helped in their second game (although that, of course, could have cut either way).

As for VCU, I would have been a little more worried about them from a fatigue standpoint if they had faced Clemson’s ridiculous First Four schedule. Instead, they got the late game in their pod for the second round and had a much shorter distance to travel than the Tigers.

Again, both great accomplishments, but I don’t see them redefining the role of fatigue in the Tournament.

Shifting gears a bit, the case has already been made several times about just how unlikely this Final Four is. For the first time since seeding began, there are no 1s or 2s playing on the last weekend of the Tournament.

To put some hard numbers to the craziness of this year’s Final Four, here are the current kenpom.com rankings for the teams through last weekend’s games. (For the uninitiated, here’s an explanation of the rankings.)

  • Kentucky – 4
  • Connecticut – 11
  • Butler – 39
  • VCU – 49

Now here are all the Final Four teams since 2003 (when Pomeroy began his rankings) with their final kenpom.com rankings in parentheses:

Year Champion Runner-up Final Four Final Four
2003 Syracuse (7) Kansas (1) Texas (10) Marquette (16)
2004 Connecticut (2) Georgia Tech (7) Duke (1) Oklahoma State (3)
2005 North Carolina (1) Illinois (2) Louisville (5) Michigan State (7)
2006 Florida (1) UCLA (3) LSU (10) George Mason (23)
2007 Florida (2) Ohio State (4) Georgetown (5) UCLA (6)
2008 Kansas (1) Memphis (2) North Carolina (4) UCLA (3)
2009 North Carolina (1) Michigan State (8) Connecticut (3) Villanova (14)
2010 Duke (1) Butler (12) West Virginia (8) Michigan State (23)

A few things jump off the screen:

  • Unless Kentucky wins the whole thing and climbs two spots by the time Monday night is over, this will be the first time since Syracuse won in 2003 that the NCAA champion won’t be ranked in the top two according to kenpom.com. (This stat also makes a good argument that the best teams actually do win the Tournament more often than not.)
  • Only 5 of the 32 teams in the previous eight Final Fours finished outside the top 10 in the kenpom.com rankings. Three of this teams are currently outside the top 10 (although UConn could jump up by the end of the weekend).
  • Coming into this year, George Mason and Michigan State were tied for the lowest-ranked teams (23rd) to make a Final Four under the kenpom.com rankings. Even allowing for some improvement over the weekend, Butler and VCU will both blow that away.
  • Whichever team comes out of the Butler-VCU game will be the lowest-ranked team to play in the championship game since the inception of the kenpom.com rankings. The 2010 edition of Butler was the previous holder of that title at 12th in the rankings.

The Butler-VCU game may be the undercard on Saturday, but to me, it’s the more fascinating game because it features two low-seeded mid-majors with talented young coaches (either of which I’d love to see at our alma mater).

Nate Silver of the New York Times’ excellent FiveThirtyEight political analysis blog lays out a convincing statistical argument that VCU’s appearance in the Final Four “may be the most unlikely occurrence in the history of the tournament.” Yet, this is a team that’s won four of its five games by double digits, including Sunday’s win over top-seeded Kansas.

Butler, of course, came within a half-court shot of winning the whole thing last year, but people forget they were the No. 11 team in the country in the preseason AP poll and went into the 2010 Tournament as a 5 seed. This year’s team (an 8 seed) had to overcome the loss of an NBA lottery pick and a rough patch in midseason that included a loss to 9-21 Youngstown State.

With two classic Cinderella teams playing each other, it presents this fan with a huge dilemma: Who do I root for?! I’m leaning toward Butler at this point because I feel like they have unfinished business after last year’s loss to Duke, but I’m taking whichever team comes out of that game against either Kentucky or UConn.

So Jimmy, who are you rooting for in the Butler-VCU game? And which one of these teams has more staying power in the long run?

Jimmy: There’s a lot to chew on in your post. One thing that jumped out at me in your table (and I know I’m probably missing the forest for the trees here): during the eight seasons listed, either Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski coached the number-one team five times. Just in case we needed to be reminded that those guys are good at their jobs.

This is the unlikeliest Final Four ever, and I’m wondering if it’s the sign of a new period in college basketball history: the post-Cinderella era. With two Final Fours and a Sweet Sixteen in the last three years, Butler is a legitimate basketball power and should remain one as long as Brad Stevens is there. As unlikely as VCU’s run has been, it’s also been marked by commanding wins: 10 over Kansas, 18 each over Georgetown and Purdue, 13 over Southern California. Only Florida State has managed to hang around with the Rams.

The talent gap in the NCAA has shrunk, largely as a result of one-and-done NBA defections. The average 8, 10 or 12 seed isn’t that much worse than the average 2, and early foul trouble for a star player or a spate of missed shots can quickly eliminate the gap altogether in a single-elimination tournament. We shouldn’t be surprised when a low side reaches the Final Four.

I’m going to root cynically tonight. Butler over VCU, because we N.C. State fans need Shaka Smart to become available as soon as possible. UConn-Kentucky is tougher. I dislike Kentucky more than UConn, but I dislike Jim Calhoun more than John Calipari. That’s pretty much a wash, and the tie goes to my beloved Kemba. Go Huskies!

I look forward to wrestling you for control of our Twitter feed tonight. May the best man win. And the Bulldogs. And the Huskies.

Jeremy: I totally agree that the talent gap between the major and mid-major teams has gotten smaller for all the reasons that you mentioned, but it’s hard for me to say that we’re entering a post-Cinderella era.

Since seeding began in 1979, only four teams seeded lower than third in their region went on to win the national title (1983 N.C. State, 1985 Villanova, 1988 Kansas and 1997 Arizona). We’re also only three years removed from a Final Four with all No. 1s. Even though there isn’t as much separating the top teams in the Tournament from the mid-tier, we haven’t had a true Cinderella champion for a while. I think this has just been an exceptionally crazy year.

As far as picks tonight, I’ve had a real dilemma with figuring out which team to root for in the early game. I’m going with Butler just because I feel like karma still owes them for the way last season’s title game ended. I also think the Bulldogs will win tonight because they won’t be awed by the stage, and VCU has been playing so far over their heads for a couple of weeks. Then again, I wouldn’t exactly rush to Vegas to bet against Smart and the Rams.

In the late game, I do dislike Calipari more than Calhoun because, unlike you, I don’t have to carry around the baggage of the 1999 UConn-Duke final and the genius last play. And Kemba Walker at least makes the Huskies somewhat likeable despite their coach, so I’ll go with them in the late game, too.

Regardless of the outcomes tonight, at least we’re set up for another “good-vs.-evil” championship game on Monday.

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