Prediction: This time, Butler does it
HOUSTON The NCAA Final Four is neatly divided this year into the Haves (Connecticut and Kentucky) and the Have-Nots (Butler and Virginia Commonwealth). Conveniently, the Have-Nots play each other in Saturday’s first semifinal and the Haves meet in the second semifinal, assuring a matchup in Monday night’s final that is similar to last season’s Duke-Butler game for the ages.
Best story line: Coach Brad Stevens has the Bulldogs back in the Final Four for a second straight season, which might be even more remarkable than last year’s run since Gordon Hayward left for the NBA. It shows his approach is not dependent on one player and that it’s possible for a mid-major to compete regularly at the top level.
Key player: Guard Shelvin Mack has stepped up his game in the NCAA Tournament to average 22.5 points per game, seven above his season average, and shoot 45.5 percent compared to 40.8 in the regular season.
X-factor: Butler has a deep, versatile bench with former starting point guard Ronald Nored and talented 6-7 freshman Khyle Marshall making key contributions.
Prediction: Bulldogs will get back to the title game with their tough defense and physical play, and this time, the dream will come true.
Best story line: Second-year coach Shaka Smart has been the sensation of the Tournament, guiding VCU from the First Four to the Final Four. Those who worked with him considered him a coaching prodigy, and he’s proving it on the big stage, winning four of five games by double digits over power-conference schools.
Key player: Point guard Joey Rodriguez has received a ton of credit for the way he has taken charge of the Rams’ offense in the postseason. His assists are up to 6.7 per game, but he’s only shooting 31.9 percent and 29.7 from three.
X-factor: The key to the Rams’ success has been the three-point shooting of 6-9 F Jamie Skeen (51.9 percent) and 6-6 G Bradford Burgess (54.3 percent).
Prediction: Butler bothered Florida’s outside shooters and will find a way to affect Skeen and Burgess and limit Rodriguez.
Best story line: Coach Jim Calhoun and Kentucky coach John Calipari are bitter rivals going back to the days when Calipari was at UMass and lured Hartford native Marcus Camby across the state line. But Calhoun has been investigated by the NCAA recently and no longer can claim the moral high ground.
Key player: Kemba Walker’s farewell tour is getting rave reviews, and the junior point guard has shown no signs of letting up since his brilliant run through the Big East with five wins in five days.
X-factor: Freshman Jeremy Lamb has ascended in the postseason, averaging 16 points per game and giving the Huskies another scoring option at crunch time. His play and that of freshman guard Shabazz Napier are key to relieving pressure on Walker.
Prediction: UConn beat Kentucky by 17 in Hawaii in November and hasn’t lost outside the Big East all year—until meeting Butler for the title.
Best story line: Calipari sent four freshmen and one upperclassman to the NBA and was able to reload with brilliant freshman point guard Brandon Knight, forward Terrence Jones and SEC Sixth Man of the Year Doron Lamb from Queens and go one step farther this season.
Key player: If any point guard can match UConn’s Walker in this tournament, it probably is Knight, who hit game-winning shots against Princeton and Ohio State.
X-factor: Senior center Josh Harrellson has averaged 14.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament to give Kentucky an inside presence after playing just six minutes in four tournament games last season.
Prediction: Calipari might have the most talented team, but it’s also the youngest, which is why he will go to 2-5 vs. Calhoun.