Even by the often-chaotic standards of college basketball in March, 2011 had some unique storylines. It isn’t often you use the seemingly contradictory phrase “repeat Cinderella”. But that’s what Butler was. It isn’t often a proud blueblood like Kentucky has to pull consecutive upsets to make the Final Four. But they did. It was—and remains—unprecedented for a program to get five victories en route to the Final Four. That’s what Virginia Commonwealth did. And it isn’t often a team with a #3 seed ends up reaching the Final Four as the highest seed remaining. But that’s what UConn was. And it was the Huskies who won the title. Here’s a look back at the paths all four teams took to reach the 2011 Final Four in Houston.
Jim Calhoun already had national titles in 1999 and 2004. As recently as 2009, Connecticut had reached college basketball’s biggest stage. After a down year in 2010, when they missed the NCAA field entirely, the Huskies bounced back. Alex Oriakhi was a reliable player in the low post, both scoring and rebounding. Jeremy Lamb was a freshman who stepped in and was a double-digit scorer in the backcourt. And few in the entire nation were better than explosive guard Kemba Walker, an All-American who poured in 24ppg, along with averaging 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game.
Connecticut notched several notable wins in non-conference play, then played mediocre basketball in the Big East Conference, where they went 9-9. Then they went to Madison Square Garden and ripped off five wins in five days to capture the Big East tournament. The combination of the early success in non-conference, along with the March Through MSG, persuaded the Selection Committee to put the Huskies on the 3-line in the West Regional.
UConn was able to play the first weekend in Washington D.C. and opened up by blowing out Bucknell 81-52, thanks to physical rebounding and stingy defense. The Round of 32 game was against a conference rival, 6-seed Cincinnati. The defense and rebounding package delivered again, holding the Bearcats to 40 percent from the floor, and a 34-22 edge on the glass. Oh, and Walker dropping a 33/6/5 line didn’t hurt either. The Huskies won 69-58.
Anaheim was the venue for the West Regional and UConn was battling 2-seed San Diego State. The Aztecs weren’t a name program, but they had a forward by the name of Kawhi Leonard. While Leonard played well in this Sweet 16 game, Walker poured in 36 points and Lamb knocked down 24. The Huskies won it 74-67. And on other side of the bracket, 5-seed Arizona took apart the region’s top seed, defending national champion Duke, behind an electrifying 32 points/13 rebounds performance from Derrick Williams.
The regional final was a good game, tight the whole way. Williams delivered 20 points for Arizona and keyed a rebounding edge for the Wildcats. But Connecticut offset that with their backcourt play. Walker put up a 20/4/7 line. Lamb went for 19. And a freshman, Shabazz Napier, who would take over this tournament himself in 2014, chipped in 10 off the bench. A 65-63 win sent Calhoun to his fourth Final Four. Walker was an easy choice as the region’s Most Outstanding Player.
Butler was the story everyone loved when the underdog program made it all the way to the 2010 Final Four in their home city of Indianapolis, and then came within a whisker of beating Duke in the title game. Normally, a Cinderella story loses its steam if you try to run a sequel. What the Bulldogs did in 2011 was even more improbable.
They lost a star player, Gordon Heyward, to the pros. Head coach Brad Stevens rebuilt around Shelvin Mack in the backcourt and Matt Howard down low. Andrew Smith was a reliable sophomore who provided rebounding help. Even so, after a 2010 campaign when they went undefeated through the Horizon League, this year’s Butler team went 13-5 in conference play and tied for first with Cleveland State and UW-Milwaukee. But the Bulldogs beat both teams in the conference tournament, got back to the NCAAs and were seeded #9 in the Southeast.
In an ironic twist, Butler opened NCAA play at the same Washington D.C. location that UConn was at. Behind 15 points apiece from Mack and Howard, the Bulldogs survived a tough 60-58 game with Old Dominion. That set up a battle with #1 seed Pitt. Butler didn’t play good defense, allowing 57 percent shooting from the floor. They didn’t rebound the ball, with the Panthers enjoying a big edge on the glass. What Butler did was hit the three-ball, to the tune of 12-for-27 from behind the arc. That included 7-for-12 from Mack, who scored 30 points. The Bulldogs again shattered brackets across the country with a 71-70 shocker.
It was on to New Orleans for the regionals, and a game with 4-seed Wisconsin. This time, the Bulldogs brought their defense and their rebounding. The Badgers only shot 30 percent, while Butler enjoyed a 35-28 edge on the glass. A 20 points/12 rebounds night from Howard keyed a 61-54 win.
An electric game took place in the other regional semi. Florida, the SEC champ and #2 seed, survived BYU’s explosive guard, Jimmer Fredette. Even though Fredette got his points, he was forced into 11-for-29 shooting. The Gators went to overtime and won, 83-74.
Could Butler really make two Final Four trips in a row? Their regional final battle with Florida was a thriller. A big difference-maker was Khlyle Marshall, who came off the bench and attacked the offensive glass, getting seven offensive rebounds. Mack was an even bigger difference-maker, nailing 27 points. The result was a 74-71 overtime win. Mack got Most Outstanding Player honors and Butler was going back to the Final Four.
It had been over a decade since the proud Kentucky program had reached a Final Four, going back to their championship year of 1998. John Calipari was in his second season in Lexington. And, as he would become famous for, Calipari recruited top-flight freshman talent and immediately put the young players in the lineup.
Brandon Knight averaged 17 points/4 rebounds/4 assists. Terrance Jones manned the post, with 16 points/8 rebounds per game. Doron Lamb ran with Knight in the backcourt and kicked in 12ppg. Darius Miller, a veritable old man in this group as a sophomore, averaged 11/5. And one senior, Josh Harrellson, hit the boards for eight rebounds a night. Kentucky finished second in the SEC during the regular season, won the conference tournament and was slotted as the 4-seed in the East Regional.
A grinding game down in Tampa Bay opened up NCAA play. Princeton was famous for nearly upsetting Georgetown in 1989, and the Tigers nearly did the same here. Kentucky’s work down low helped them survive. Harrelson posted a 15/10 line, while Miller went for 17 points and the Wildcats escaped 59-57.
Fifth-seeded West Virginia provided another tough opponent and Kentucky fell behind 41-33 at the half in the Round of 32. But the men down low were again doing good work—Harrellson with a 15/8 and Jones adding 12/10. And Knight was spectacular. He went off for 30 points and the Wildcats dominated the second half in a 71-63 win.
The East Regional would be settled in Newark and there were no bracket breaks. The top two seeds, Ohio State and North Carolina, had both advanced. The Wildcats met the Buckeyes in the Round of 16. Harrellson continued his terrific tournament play with a 17/10 night. That helped Kentucky neutralize the impact of the great Buckeye forward, Jared Sullinger, who racked up a 21/16. And the Wildcats outshot the Buckeyes 46 percent to 33 percent from the floor. They pulled out the 62-60 win.
North Carolina had blown out 11-seed Marquette and set up an all-blueblood regional final. Kentucky had reached the Elite Eight in this same region a year earlier as the 1-seed, before a poor shooting night doomed their Final Four hopes. That loss came to West Virginia. The Wildcats had already avenged that loss. In this game with the Tar Heels, the three-point shooting went the ‘Cats way. Kentucky hit 12-for-22 from behind the arc, while UNC struggled to a 3-for-16 night. Kentucky won 76-69. Knight, with a 22/7/4 line was a reasonable choice as Most Outstanding Player. But the work of Harrellson throughout this entire regional should not be overlooked.
The Ram program fell in the category of “mostly respectable” through its history. VCU had made a few NCAA Tournaments in the 1980s. They were a consistent contender in the Colonial Athletic Association, a one-bid league. They had made a few NCAAs again in the first decade of the 2000s. Shaka Smart took over as head coach in 2010, went 27-9, and won the CBI Tournament, a postseason event for teams that hadn’t made the NCAA.
Virginia Commonwealth was led a couple of good forwards, Jamie Skeen and Brandon Burgess, who combined to average 30 points/13 rebounds per game in 2011. Joey Rodriguez was a good point guard, handing out five assists per night and scoring in double figures. Brandon Rozell was another reliable backup scorer. VCU finished the season 21-10, but they were slumping. The Rams lost four of their last five regular season games. They lost in the first round of the CAA Tournament.
So, when their name was announced as one of the final teams to qualify for the NCAA field, slotted in one of the play-in games, there was more than a little surprise. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas would say that not only did this decision not pass the eye test “it doesn’t pass the laugh test.” In fairness, Bilas added that VCU had good players and was certainly capable of winning a game or two. But the first soundbite was far too memorable and it would go in the category of “famous last words”.
Virginia Commonwealth went to Dayton and knocked off USC 59-46, behind Skeen’s 16/9 night. The Rams journeyed on to Chicago and beat 6-seed Georgetown 74-56, behind 22 points from Rozell. Then Burgess went off on 3-seed Purdue, putting up a 23/8 line, while Rodriguez dished out 11 assists. VCU blew out the Boilermakers 94-76. The Rams weren’t just winning games. They were hammering people.
And the Southwest Regional that they were placed in was being ripped apart by upsets. Along with Georgetown and Purdue, Notre Dame (#2), Louisville (#4), Vanderbilt (#5), and Texas A&M (#7) were all gone. Kansas, the #1 seed, appeared to be set up with a cakewalk through regional weekend in San Antonio. With Virginia Commonwealth being an interesting story, along with the fact that intracity rival Richmond had also reached the Sweet 16 in this bracket.
VCU played #10 seed Florida State in the regional semis. In a sizzling game, the Rams hitting 12-for-26 from three-point range was the difference. Burgess nailed 6 of his 7 shots from behind the arc, scored 26 points, and led a thrilling 72-71 overtime win.
Kansas beat up on Richmond in the other Sweet 16 game. It seemed this was a good spot for VCU’s run to end. They had more than answered their critics. But they weren’t done. In fact, they came blasting out of the gate and put the Jayhawks in a 14-point hole by halftime. Skeen went off for a 26/10 afternoon. More hot shooting from downtown continued, with the Rams going 12-for-25 on treys. In a stunning development, Virginia Commonwealth not only beat Kansas, they delivered a decisive 71-61 win that really wasn’t even that close. Skeen was MOP of the regional. And VCU was going to its first Final Four.
THE 2011 FINAL FOUR
So, we had a couple traditional programs in UConn and Kentucky and two schools from the mid-major conferences in Butler and Virginia Commonwealth coming to Houston. And the way the bracket worked out, the underdogs would play in one semi, while the bluebloods squared off in the other.
Butler and VCU played the early evening game. The Rams outshot the Bulldogs 40 percent to 36 percent from the floor. But rebounding was making the difference for Butler. They enjoyed a big 46-30 edge on the glass. The Bulldogs also got to the free throw line, holding a 20-8 edge in points from the charity strip. Even though Skeen had a big game with 27 points, Butler had more balance. Mack knocked down 24 points and grabbed six rebounds. Howard went for 17/8. The Bulldogs won 70-62 and earned their second straight appearance on Monday Night.
In the marquee event, UConn took a 31-21 lead at halftime, keyed by a defense that would hold Kentucky to 34 percent shooting on the night. Knight was forced into a tough 6-for-23 game. Walker put up an 18/6/7 line. Lamb snuck in from his guard spot to get nine rebounds, while Oriahki added ten boards. The Wildcats tightened the game dramatically and it came down to the wire. But the Huskies prevailed, 56-55.
Monday Night in the NCAA Tournament has given us some great moments over the years. Indeed, it’s fair to say that no championship event in sports delivers on the promise of drama more consistently than this game. The UConn-Butler game…well, let’s just say it wasn’t one of those games. The shooting was awful on both sides. The Huskies were held to 35 percent. But with the Bulldogs shooting a stunning 19 percent from the floor, UConn seemed sizzling hot by comparison. At one point, the broadcasting crew of Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg compared the game to watching paint dry—and then apologized to anyone who might have enjoyed watching paint dry for offending their hobby.
But when you win, how pretty it looks really doesn’t matter. Lamb and Oriahki were two players who shot pretty well, combining to hit 9-for-17 from the floor. They also combined for 18 rebounds. Walker, while shooting 6-for-19, still put together 16 points and nine rebounds. UConn won 53-41. Walker was not only Most Outstanding Player, but his performance this entire tournament—even going back to the five-day run through the Big East tourney—would be remembered as one of the great individual efforts of March Madness. Jim Calhoun had his third ring. The last step might have been ugly. But the overall effort is one that truly made history.