The 2011 NCAA tournament has yielded some of the most entertaining results in recent memory.
Next weekend’s Final Four in Houston will not feature even a single No. 1 or No. 2-seeded team. In case you’ve been under a rock for the past two weeks, the last four teams standing are 4th-seeded Kentucky, 3rd-seeded Connecticut, 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth and 8th-seeded Butler.
Though both Kentucky and Connecticut have programs rich with basketball tradition, this remains one of the most unexpected Final Four fields of all-time.
The unorthodox nature of this year’s tournament got me thinking, ‘What is happening within the college basketball landscape that allows for mid-majors to make deep postseason runs with consistency?’
First, one must consider the long-term effects the “one and done” rule has had on major college basketball programs. For those new to college basketball, the so-called “one and done” rule was implemented after the 2005 NBA Draft making it necessary for high school players to wait one year before entering their name in the NBA Draft.
The rule was aimed to help the college game. The thinking was that if premier high school players were forced to sit out a year before entering the NBA, they would use that time to hone their skills at the college level (which, for the most part, has been the case).
Since 2006, a slew of players have graced the college ranks for a single season before becoming a top-five pick in the following draft. (Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins)
Though “one and done” seems to favor the major programs, there are negative ripple effects that go along with it.
The programs that annually lose top players to the draft after just one or two seasons often struggle in forming a rapport with one another. More often than not, the programs that struggle to keep their best players for several seasons come from major conferences.
Because mid-majors rarely draw players worthy of being drafted in the lottery after their freshmen seasons, they often field rosters higher in experience and chemistry. Sometimes, that chemistry and experience is enough to overcome the more talented, less experienced programs.
Ultimately, I believe it is this discrepancy that has helped teams like Butler (led by seniors Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard) and Virginia Commonwealth (led by seniors Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez) to knock off several big name schools on their way to Houston.
But certainly this isn’t the only factor that has led to greater parity in college basketball.
The ever-expanding list of Division-I schools (now at 346) is in direct proportion to the growing talent pool of high school basketball players. As such, prospective collegiate athletes are given more choices than ever before. Long gone are the days when every top recruit headed to Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA or Kansas.
All of these factors have helped to spread talent to programs of all sizes and traditions.
Now that I’ve made sense of the madness, let’s get to the picks for this weekend’s national semi-finals.
#4 Kentucky vs. #3 UConn
The best player in the tournament has been Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, edging Arizona’s Derrick Williams after the two players met on Saturday night. The secondary scoring presence of freshman Jeremy Lamb has taken considerable pressure off of Walker.
Meanwhile, the development of Kentucky’s center Josh Harrellson has been vital in the Wildcats run to the Final Four. His ability to scrap down low has added a much needed interior presence to compliment the strong guard play of Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins.
Pick: UConn. You can’t go against Kemba Walker at this point.
#11 VCU vs. #8 Butler
The Rams of VCU had to win five games to get to the Final Four as they were selected to one of the four play-in games on Selection Sunday. Shaka Smart has his Rams playing incredibly well thanks to their effective press defense and long distance shooting. The player to watch is Jamie Skeen, who erupted for 26 points and 10 rebounds in the Elite 8. Skeen can beat you in several ways: down low, from beyond the arc, blocking shots and rebounding the ball.
Butler is back in the Final Four for the second consecutive season despite losing Gordon Heyward to the NBA Draft last season. The Bulldogs depend heavily on the production of seniors Mack and Howard. Mack went off for 27 points to knock off Florida in the Elite 8. The Bulldogs have a flare for the dramatic, winning in the final possession in three out of their four tournament games.
Pick: Butler. I love the VCU story, but I’m going with the team that’s been there before.
Sports Editor Joel Hafnor can be reached at email@example.com.