By Michael Rosenberg
So when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth meet in the Final Four, what will they do? Compare slingshots?
There has never been anything like what we will witness in Houston next weekend. Cinderella will look in the mirror and realize it’s not a mirror; it’s another Cinderella. The impossible just happened twice.
Until the last week before the regular season, nobody knew if Butler and VCU would even make the tournament. Butler had to win its conference tournament to ensure a bid. VCU had to wait until the selection committee made ESPN analysts throw up.
And now here they are. Duke is gone. Ohio State is gone. Every No. 1 and 2 seed is gone. And Butler and VCU are still standing, ready to meet in the Final Four.
If eighth-seeded Butler makes the title game – ladies and gentlemen, that is now the chalk pick – the Bulldogs will play for the championship for the second straight year. Yes, just like the Patrick Ewing Georgetown teams, the Christian Laettner-Grant Hill-Bobby Hurley Duke teams, the Fab Five, and the James Worthy-Sam Perkins North Carolina teams. Butler.
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal we have Connecticut and Kentucky. Connecticut is led by Jim Calhoun, who was recently suspended for orchestrating one of the uglier cheating scandals in recent college basketball history. (You may call Connecticut by its nickname: You Con.) And to most people, Calhoun will be the likable coach in that game. On the other bench is John Calipari, who owned the patent on all jokes about vacating Final Four berths, though he later had to vacate the patent.
Calhoun was found guilty of worse than anything Calipari has personally been found guilty of, but no matter. Right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, Cal is the most disliked college hoops coach in America. Even Jerry Tarkanian was sort of endearing. It’s not just Calipari’s scandals at Memphis and UMass. It’s that he revels in the one-and-done, don’t-even-fake-that-you-want-to-graduate nature of today’s game. In the minds of most college basketball fans, the current Kentucky program only has two redeeming qualities: Ashley Judd, and pictures of Ashley Judd. (Not that Kentucky fans care. They are the most passionate fans in the sport. Their team is in the Final Four again, and they aren’t going to apologize for it.)
The beautiful thing is that we have a made-for-TV, good-vs.-evil special coming up in the title game. VCU-Kentucky? Butler-Connecticut? Any matchup will work. Again: It doesn’t matter if it’s totally fair. And of course, this assumes that Butler and VCU do everything by the book. (I have no idea if they do or not. That’s the point. Cheating happens in the smaller conferences, too, but we assume it doesn’t.)
Will the best team in the country emerge from this Final Four? Nah, I doubt it. And this brings up a salient question: Do we really want a system that determines the best team in a sport?
I mean, we say we do. It sounds good. But let’s face it: This isn’t the situation in Libya or your uncle’s heart surgery. We’re not all that concerned about right and wrong or the perfect outcome. We want to be entertained. The NCAA tournament is not about rewarding the best team in the country. It’s about rewarding the best team in the tournament. And I suspect most of us prefer it that way.
And, yes, that could easily end up being Butler or VCU. Forget the whole mid-major thing. How did teams that had to play their way into the tournament make it to the last weekend?
Maybe the question is its own answer. Maybe playing their way in is what did it. Consider recent history:
The San Francisco Giants did not clinch the National League West until the final day of last season. They then won the World Series. The Green Bay Packers clinched the sixth (and last) playoff spot in the NFC on the last Sunday of the season. They then won the Super Bowl.
Then VCU and Butler went from the wrong side of the bubble to the same side of the Final Four in a month. This just adds to a theory of mine: It’s good to sprint to the edge of a cliff and stop. (SI LEGAL DEPARTMENT NOTE: Not literally! Carry on.) If you almost get eliminated, two wonderful things can happen. One, you know you can handle the pressure, and you don’t worry about it anymore. And two, you feel like it’s your destiny to win.
I don’t believe in destiny, but I believe in believing in destiny. What I mean is that a team that believes in its destiny is more likely to win. We’re seeing that now with VCU and Butler. As Kansas came back Sunday, VCU never came close to panicking, just as Butler looked like the more poised team down the stretch against Florida.
We’re all surprised that those guys from Butler will face whoever those other guys from VCU are in the Final Four. But they don’t seem surprised, and maybe that helps explain why they are here.