The Unlikelys: Butler and UConn Play For It All
Written by Eddie Pells, AP Sports Writer Sunday, 03 April 2011 20:11
Butler coach Brad Stevens loves an underdog, whether it's his team back in the Final Four or Connecticut making an unprecedented five-games-in-five-nights run through the Big East tournament.
A Big East team as an underdog? The coach at tiny Butler cheering for big, bad UConn?
Welcome to the bizarro world of college basketball in 2011 — a sport where not only is anything possible, but where nothing quite makes sense. A sport in which the story of a small school from a small conference making a run to a title is no more rare than that of the late-season magic conjured by a power program with one of the nation's best players.
Butler and Connecticut will meet Monday in the national title game — the eighth-seeded Bulldogs trying to finish the deal after coming oh-so-close last season and the third-seeded Huskies (31-9), led by Kemba Walker, talking about shocking the world with their 11th straight victory after a regular season that foreshadowed none of this.
"We were all rooting for UConn because it was a great story," Stevens said, "a lot of fun to follow."
As is Butler, the team from a 4,500-student campus in Indianapolis that practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse, used as the backdrop for the classic movie "Hoosiers" — the based-on-reality melodrama in which tiny Hickory High stares down the biggest schools in Indiana and wins the state championship. On its second try.
What seemed impossible in that movie is becoming more the norm, at least in the college game. Last season, Butler (28-9) came one desperation heave from toppling Duke to become the first true mid-major to win the championship. This season, Butler wasn't even the biggest longshot at the Final Four. That was VCU, an 11th seed that fell to the Bulldogs in Saturday's semifinal.
As recently as 2008, the NCAA tournament landed all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, there wasn't a single 1 or 2 for the first time in the 33-year history of seeding.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said this has been the natural progression since the NCAA started limiting scholarships and new NBA rules triggered a flood of players who would come to college for one year, then declare for the draft.
"It's as close to parity as there can be," Calhoun said. "It certainly can occur in a tournament a lot more than it could playing a Saturday night, then Big Monday. It's just the nature of things. ... The one-and-done thing, walking the tightrope is a hard thing, a very difficult thing."
If anyone can say they've mastered it this season, it's UConn. Led by Walker, the junior guard on the verge of becoming the best player to ever put on a Huskies uniform, Connecticut won five games in five nights against Big East competition to win the postseason tournament.
A remarkable accomplishment in any conference, but especially the Big East — the 16-team behemoth that placed a record 11 teams in the tournament this year. Maybe because of the grueling nature of its regular season, the Big East wore down and had a terrible showing, only moving two teams into the second weekend.
But Connecticut is still standing, a testament to Walker's playmaking ability (he's averaging 25.5 points during this 10-game winning streak) and Calhoun's ability to adjust on the fly to the fatigue that has predictably set in.
"Our code has been very simple: 'The hell with it, let's just go play basketball,'" Calhoun said. "Well, we wouldn't be doing all the things we did last night defensively to Kentucky if we just kind of rolled the thing out there. We worked very hard on it. But we worked on it in a different way."
Connecticut advanced to the final by holding the Wildcats to 33.9 percent shooting in a 56-55 victory Saturday night.
Butler, meanwhile, only needed two wins in four nights to capture the tournament title in the less-heralded Horizon League. Still, the Bulldogs are on a 14-game winning streak that began after losing their third straight back on Feb. 3. At that point, this was a team that had no guarantees it would even make the NCAA field. It looked nothing like the one that captured hearts as it made its run through last year's tournament.
In the final last April, Butler trailed Duke 61-59 with 3.6 seconds left when Gordon Hayward (now playing for Utah in the NBA) grabbed the rebound off an intentionally missed free throw, dribbled four times to the halfcourt line and launched a shot at the buzzer. It hit the backboard, the inside of the rim and bounced out. It could have been the greatest finish ever in sports. It wound up as something less, though Stevens insists he walked away that night feeling like a winner.
"Our guys played as well as they could have," Stevens said. "They represented themselves in an unbelievable manner throughout that whole game. That might be the reason why we had parades, too, even though we lost. It was remarkable the way people treated us even though we lost."
One win away from the pinnacle once again, the Bulldogs are talking about finishing the deal this time. They haven't turned their backs on the heart-tugging story lines that help define them, but they don't fall back on them, either.
"There are some connections to us and 'Hoosiers.' I understand that, and that's nice if people want to make those connections," senior forward Matt Howard said.
Calhoun, trying to become only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles, says he appreciates Butler as much as the next guy. He sees the slow, steady improvement of mid-majors such as Butler and figures there will be more tournaments like this one and more nights like Monday — where the small school and the big school are on even footing.
Maybe one of those days, the little guy will win it all.
"I think it's good for college basketball," Calhoun said. "I think if it starts around 2012, 2013, it would be a wonderful thing."
VCU Coach Rolls Out Emily Dickinson at Final Four
Written by Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:13
You know it's a new day at the Final Four when a coach pulls Emily Dickinson off his bench to bolster his argument for winning the national title.
"Dwell in possibility."
The poet's words trip so easily off the tongue of Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart — whose name just about says it all — that they hardly sound jarring, even in this era of countless cliches and 24-hour sports talk. And with good reason.
Run into Smart away from the basketball court and he's likely to have a stack of papers tucked underneath one arm, more than 100 pages of inspirational quotes and poems that inform almost everything he does. To say he's spent nearly every waking moment preparing for the next one isn't saying nearly enough.
As a kid growing up near Madison, Wis., Smart wrote "Duke" on a sheet of paper and taped it to his bedroom wall because that's where he planned to play college basketball. Around the time he realized he'd never crack the lineup there, he turned down a chance to attend Harvard and Yale for tiny Kenyon College. After his junior year there, he taped a list of the all-conference team to his dorm room wall to remind himself of the player he wanted to become. Smart not only did that, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history.
Neither the appearance of a cerebral young coach nor a mid-major program at the annual party thrown for the sport's royalty should be all that jarring anymore. Just last year, Butler coach Brad Stevens — whose Bulldogs will face VCU in Saturday's first semifinal — rolled into the championship game, only to be turned away at the buzzer when a half-court shot by since-departed NBA first-round pick Gordon Hayward skidded off the front of the rim.
So naturally, when Smart was asked whether it was realistic for his mid-major team to be the last one standing when confetti rains down from the roof of Reliant Stadium come Monday night, he cited Stevens and Butler, then dropped the pearl from Dickinson before a crowd of reporters, and paused.
"At least I hope it's possible," he added, smiling, "or we just might as well turn around now and go home."
VCU isn't going anywhere, of course, even though everybody connected to the game save Smart and his players whined long and loud about the Rams simply being invited to the tournament. It might have been the biggest motivational gift ever for a coach, since just this once it was nearly impossible for Smart to overplay the "us-against-the-world" angle.
"Every day, he showed us something to remind us, 'We don't belong,'" VCU guard Brandon Burgess said, shaking his head and remembering the barrage even as the Rams battered a succession of major-conference foes. "Video clips, newspapers, pages off the internet, e-mails, you name it."
Smart never lacks for material, to be sure, but not just because of that well-worn sheaf of papers. Like Stevens, who at 34 is a year older, he's in the vanguard of a youth movement making a dent in one of the most hidebound fraternities in sports. Coaching at the highest level remains largely an older man's racket, because jobs at the top programs still require a long, success-stuffed resume, not to mention a name well-enough known to sell tickets.
Yet it's the guys like Smart, who saw the dispersal of talented kids to mid-major programs as a way to jump the coaching queue, who are generating most of the buzz lately. They're still young enough to talk to their players instead of at them, hang out after practice or step onto on the court and demonstrate exactly what they're trying to get across.
"I try not to make it a dictatorship," he said, "unless I have to."
Yet seeing him as an authority figure wasn't easy, at least not initially. After a decade of apprenticeships at California University (Pa.), Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida, VCU was Smart's first head-coaching stint. He followed Anthony Grant, who was nearly a decade older and spent most of his free time with a growing family.
"The first time I saw him on the court, I'm thinking, 'Who is this little guy?'" Burgess recalled. "I thought it was a joke at first."
"He thinks he's a better player than us. He thinks he's a better passer than me," teammate Joey Rodriguez said. "I tell him, 'You played at Kenyon College,' we're in the Final Four, so ..."
Although no one who has spent much time around Smart — his siblings, professors, former bosses and even LeBron James, who worked out with him the summer before he turned pro — ever doubted Smart would find his calling, none ever expected it to happen so fast.
"He understands what it takes to run a basketball program, he understands rhythm of the team, and he understands you stay with it," said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, who gave Smart his first big break as an assistant at Dayton, then brought him back when Purnell got the top job at Clemson.
"I think most importantly," Purnell said, "he understands you're in competition on a daily basis for hearts and minds of kids."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org
Charge Against UW Basketball Player to Be Dropped
Written by (AP) Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:09
University of Washington basketball player Venoy Overton has been given a continuance on a charge of furnishing alcohol to a minor.
The action Thursday in Seattle Municipal Court means the charge will be dismissed if he avoids another criminal charge for a year and completes 24 hours of community service.
The 22-year-old was charged March 8, accused of giving alcohol on Jan. 8 to two 16-year-old girls he met online.
Coach Lorenzo Romar suspended Overton for the Pac-10 Conference tournament, but allowed him to return for the NCAA tournament. The senior guard's college basketball career ended with the Huskies' loss to North Carolina.
If Overton violates the terms of the continuance he could be sentenced to up to a year in jail on the alcohol charge.
Judge Deciding if Okla. St. Player to Stand Trial
Written by Jeff Latzke, AP Sports Writer Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:02
A judge is deciding whether Oklahoma State basketball player Darrell (duh-RELL') Williams should stand trial on felony charges that allege he inappropriately touched two women without their consent.
During a full day of testimony Thursday, the two female students said Williams reached into their pants against their will at a December party.
The 21-year-old Williams is charged with one count of sexual battery and three counts of rape by instrumentation. He's pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors are asking the judge to add another count of rape by instrumentation, along with sexual battery and kidnapping.
Judge Michael Stano says a ruling won't come until Monday, because he needs to review whether to allow the defense to call witnesses.
VCU Sees Opportunity in Final Four Trip
Written by Steve Szkotak, Associated Press Thursday, 31 March 2011 04:44
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On a campus where hundreds have lined up daily to buy Final Four T-shirts at $21.98 each, VCU film students Caroline Miller and Tommy Bell were selling glazed doughnuts at $1 a pop while pausing to reflect on their school's improbable run.
"I've never seen this much school spirit," said Miller, standing behind boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, the sticky sweet attraction of their arts fundraiser. "On Sunday, you couldn't even walk outside without cracking a grin for how proud the school is right now."
Building steam, Miller added, "I think the school is going to, like, massively grow — it's just going to explode."
Bell has been caught up in the Rams' run, too, and shares the widely held view that the basketball team's inspirational performance can only benefit the school.
"VCU's a great school, in my opinion," said the sophomore from Knoxville, Tenn. "If it gets more attention, more people, more tuition, I don't think it can hurt."
From the president's office to City Hall, Virginia Commonwealth University's trip to college basketball's most exclusive gathering is viewed as a huge plus for this urban campus of 32,303 students and the city in which it occupies some prime real estate. It's a great opportunity to highlight the school's academics while dispelling some myths in the process.
"What's happening is there's an enormous level of interest from all kinds of people in VCU right now," school President Michael Rao said Tuesday. "We're really on everyone's screen."
Rao expects VCU's first trip to the Final Four, where it plays Butler for a spot in the championship game, to double the school's annual giving to $80 million in a decade, along with bringing in more research dollars and attracting more students.
He's also intent on setting the record straight: VCU is not a commuter school and it is not an open-access school.
"People will say to me — and it makes me crazy — 'What's your average SAT score? Is it up near a thousand yet?' Well, it's well over a thousand," Rao said.
For the record, it's just under 1,100.
"It's not a commuter school anymore," Rao said. "We can't build housing fast enough."
VCU dates its origins to 1838, when it was the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College, and became Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968. It now occupies vast expanses of Richmond at the tip of The Fan, a residential district of stately homes and trendy restaurants.
The campus is a mix of brownstones fitting of Boston's Back Bay and high-rise student housing that could pass for Moscow apartment buildings — all concrete and metal. The campus also includes the 52.4-acre VCU Medical Center across downtown.
The optimism inspired by the team's trip to Houston is reminiscent of another Virginia school and its 2006 appearance in the Final Four: George Mason. The two are rivals on the court in the Colonial Athletic Association, and jockey annually for the claim as the school with the largest enrollment in the state.
"It was an exhilarating time," George Mason spokesman Daniel Walsch recalled. "It was not like anything we've experienced before."
A study conducted by the school concluded the Final Four appearance resulted in immediate gains. Admissions inquiries increased by 350 percent, alumni became more active and fundraising continues to climb. The study estimated the value of free media exposure at $677 million.
"Student demand has certainly increased dramatically" Walsch said, "to the point where we're bursting at the seams."
At VCU, the bookstore has been a visible barometer of the school's popularity as the Rams upset their way to the Final Four, with a stunning victory over top-seeded Kansas last Sunday the biggest of all. About 600 people lined up after that win for the latest shipment of clothing and memorabilia celebrating the team's historic run.
Amy Randolph, the store general manager, hasn't been able to keep apace of demand as lines have snaked around the building, just down the busy thoroughfare where the Rams play.
"So many have come down on their lunch break," Randolph said. "I've heard so many people say I'm not even a basketball fan but I had to get a Final Four shirt."
Bob Dickerson, a 1990 VCU grad, was sizing up a yellow golf shirt with the VCU logo. He was looking for something to wear to work Friday at Virginia Dominion Power. Its downtown high-rise saluted the team in lights Monday with the words: "VCU GO RAMS!"
"It's incredible, just incredible," he said. "I don't think even Kentucky can stop them."
Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who came from Philadelphia to attend Virginia Union University, said the Rams' success can only be good for his city of approximately 200,000. It was also rooting for the University of Richmond, which made it to the round of 16.
"We're riding the wave and we're really excited about the national attention," Jones said. "People need to know that Richmond is a city on the rise, that we're up and coming. Thirty-three-thousand students can't be wrong."
Jones said he planned on attending the Final Four.
"How can you be the mayor of Hoopstown and not go to Houston?" he asked.
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