Tonight, at 6:06 PM in Houston Texas, the ball is thrown up to start this season's Final Four. The evening's first game couldn't feature a more unlikely pair: the Butler Bulldogs and the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. While the Cinderella slipper fits comfortably on both teams, their paths to this point couldn't be more different.
Butler was last season's Cinderella story, coming within a half-court heave of the National Championship. Despite losing Gordon Hayward to the NBA, the Bulldogs return key contributors from last year's team. The tandem of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard have led the Bulldogs on a run through the tournament which has featured gutsy last second victories in each round. The Bulldogs opened the tournament by dispatching Old Dominion 60-58 on a last second Matt Howard tip. In the second round, Butler sent top seed Pittsburgh packing in one of the tournament's woolliest endings, beating the Panthers 71-70 in a game decided by last second fouls. The Bulldogs came out firing against the Wisconion Badgers, but weathered a second half comeback to hold on for a 61-54 victory. Then, in the Elite Eight, Butler also endured another nailbiter, needing overtime to beat the Florida Gators 74-71.
While Butler has all the trappings of being the underdog.... they're not. That title belongs to the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. The Rams inclusion amongst the field of 68 had pundits howling, but it's hard to argue that any team in the tournament has done better work than VCU. The first team in history to play in the First Four and advance to the Final Four, the Rams have done so in dominating fashion. They waltzed through their first three games whipping USC, Georgetown, and Purdue by 13, 18, and 18, respectively. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Rams faced their toughest test, and needed overtime to overcome the Florida State Seminoles. Then, in the Elite Eight, they faced the Kansas Jayhawks, a team many thought was the best in the country.... and just embarrassed them. The Rams jumped out to huge lead early and Bill Self's squad could never overcome it. In the 2011 NCAA tournament, Cinderella just straight up whips people.
So as these two unlikely opponents square off of college basketball's biggest stage, who will come out on top. The Rams, led by Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez, and coached by the young and energetic Shaka Smart have been utterly white hot and have cruised up until this point. Their opponent, the Mack and Howard-led Bulldogs (with their own energetic and youthful coach, Brad Steven) have had to play close, gritty games. I think that experience benefits the Bulldogs, and they will return to their second National Title Game in two years. Butler: 80, VCU: 75