Monday, March 28, 2011

Ryan Braun

On March 13th, so-called experts on different sports shows declared this year's field of 68 to be the weakest in recent memory and they weren't wrong. Not only did this tournament feature the most double-digit loss teams ever, it also contained 5 teams with 14 losses; there have only been a total of 6 teams with 14 losses ever to compete in the tournament since it expanded in 1985. So the experts might have been right - this is the weakest field in recent memory. It also might be the most interesting.

A weak bracket should mean that the number one seeds have an easy route to the Final Four. Except not one made it. This has happened twice before: in 1980, with Louisville (2 seed), UCLA (8 seed), Purdue (6 seed), and Iowa (5 seed),  and in 2006with Florida (3 seed), UCLA (2 seed), George Mason (11 seed), and LSU (4 seed). However, this year, there are no number 2 seeds either. There's never been a Final Four with a 1 or a 2 seed in it. So much for that 'weakest field' argument. This year's Final Four is UCONN (3 seed), Kentucky (4 seed), VCU (11 seed), and Butler (8 seed). The match-ups this upcoming weekend are interesting for a number of reasons. 

First, a quick look at the first match-up. UCONN and Kentucky already played each other once this year in the Maui tournament (UCONN won 84-67). It's easy to see the draw of the UCONN and Kentucky game. Neither are strangers to the Final Four; this is UCONN's 2nd trip in the last 3 years, Coach Calhoun's 4th trip, two of which have led to national championships; Kentucky hasn't been to the Final Four since 1998, which is when they obtained one of their 7 national championships, but Coach Calipari is now the only coach to take three different teams to the Final Four (even if the first two were vacated by the NCAA). Some people might love this match-up because of the tradition of these two legendary programs and coaches. I'm rooting for UCONN because my little sister has them winning the tournament and she's the only member of our family whose bracket hasn't gone down in flames and because I think it would be a waste of a tournament if Calipari won, only to have the wins vacated later because it's bound to happen eventually. 

The other match-up, however, poses a problem for many. Often in this tournament, unless your bracket is still in the running to earn you some money (in other words, unless you're jspearlman), people tend to root for the underdog. But this is the match-up of the underdogs. An 8 seed vs an 11 seed. Two young, up-and-coming coaches (whose combined ages are less than Jim Calhoun's 68 years). So here's the problem: which bandwagon will you jump on?

Here's where I try and convince you to root for VCU, the 3rd 11 seed to ever make the Final Four. Butler beat Old Dominion (9 seed), Pitt (1 seed), Wisconsin (4 seed), and Florida (2 seed). VCU beat USC in the play-in game, Georgetown (6 seed), Purdue (3 seed), Florida State (10 seed), and Kansas (1 seed). (On a side note, Kansas has become the dream opponent for mid-major schools. Since 2005, they've lost to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, and VCU.) Give credit to both of these teams for making it this far. Just give more credit to VCU.

From the very moment that VCU's name was announced, they were questioned, particularly from Jay Bilas, who called out the selection committee by saying their choice of allowing VCU into the tournament was "indefensible" and wondering whether the committee "knows if the ball is round". His criticism wasn't wrong - VCU probably didn't deserve their bid and probably robbed either Colorado or Virginia Tech of theirs - but VCU has used it for motivation. They've played five games so far, as opposed to the four that Butler has played, and they haven't just won these games: they've dominated. They beat Georgetown (albiet an injured and struggling Georgetown) by 18 points. They beat an incredibly healthy and incredibly talented Purdue team by 18 points. They just managed to get past another cinderella in FSU in overtime before they beat the Morris twins of Kansas by 10 points, leading at one point by 18. Butler, on the other hand, has edged over their opposition with the help of crazy shots and foul calls in every game except their victory over Wisconsin, with their largest victory being by 7. Don't get me wrong: Butler's a good team and they've played hard. I'm just suggesting that VCU has been a tad more motivated and a bit more impressive thus far. 

Butler's had their cinderella story. Brad Stevens got his Bulldogs to the Final Four in their home town of Indianapolis against all odds last year, brought them to the championship game, and was one half court shot away from bringing home their first championship. This year, it's Shaka Smart's turn. VCU had never been past the second round of the tournament until this year. This year, Brad Stevens has shown that he can get it done twice, that he wasn't depending on Gordan Hayward to win last year. This is not the last time we'll see Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs; in fact, I expect him to take home a championship within the next 5 or 6 years. Hopefully just not this year. It's too early to say whether Shaka Smart and VCU will be able to do this again; whether this is the beginning of upward turn for VCU or one anomaly of an otherwise average basketball program. If that's the case, this might be the last chance VCU has for a while. They've been questioned and they've responded without any help from Lady Luck or the NCAA officiating team. They've fought too hard to stop now. If that's not the case and Shaka Smart takes this team to the next level, they're still the underdogs this year. Butler can only win so much before they're not a cinderella story anymore. They've reached that point. Back-to-back Final Fours will do that. That's a good thing - it means that they've established a successful and respectable basketball program. It also means they're not the underdogs anymore. 

There you have it. I'm not telling you that you have to root for VCU. If you're a Butler grad or know a Butler grad, if you have ties to the school or if you think their mascot is cute, then by all means root for Butler. But if you're rooting for the underdog, you gotta root for VCU. 

Today's blog is titled for Ryan Braun, an outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers. He's from California and attended Miami University in Florida. He made his debut for the Brewers on May 25, 2007. In 2009, he became just the 8th player in MLB history with at least 100 runs, 100 RBI, 200 hits, 30 HR, 20 SB, and a .300 batting average in the same season. He's single and enjoys the beach, water sports, movies, and car. He also has his own batting line (RB8's) and clothing line (Remetee). Baseball's opening day is this Thursday. I'm not nearly as excited as this commercial says I should be. 

Hasta la vista!
The Sports Nerd

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