A Butler v. VCU Final Four Matchup Brings Last April's Headlines Full Circle

"When Gordon Hayward's shot fell two inches too far to the right, I was just about ready to give up on this [blogging thing]. It was too time consuming." --- Nick Fasulo, October 2010.

We were... [ ] ...that close from opening wide our schedules for the Winter months, putting away our pens keyboards, and sitting back like the rest of the college basketball, casually enjoying the 2010-2011 season. Some of you- Wisconsinbooooya!IM LegendRustyShackleford -maybe wish we had. Then we thought, what would we do in the frigid Northeast United States if we weren't totally consumed in the sport for five straight months?

But all this hasn't been about the three of us babbling fools... it's not even remotely about Billy Edelin. It's been about past legends, freshmen sensations, buzzer-beaters, Pearl's BBQ's, Boeheim's rants, Kemba's stepback, The Jimmer, Davies' girl, Gus, and now Shaka and Shelvin.

As we revel in the final chapters of yet another scintillating NCAA Tournament, let's take a link-filled look back two story lines from 2010 that have come full circle at the 2011 Final Four.

Last April, the sports world was abuzz over Butler's fairy tale journey all the way to the final game... and final second for that matter. The popularity of the diminutive Indianapolis university skyrocketed, the offers poured in (and were rejected) from big schools seeking to hire the 33 year-old head coach of the Hickory Hoosiers, while thousands of fans YouTubed the greatest shot that didn't go in. Hayward, the 6'10'' man behind famous near miss, took his game to the Utah Jazz professional basketball organization, but left behind a Butler team still rife with talent like Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Andrew Smith, and a hungry coach in Brad Stevens.

The Bulldogs pre-season hype quickly waned as they fell to 4-4 in early December. A three game losing streak in early February had last year's national runner-up at 14-9 (6-5) in the average Horizon League. Where was the buzz? Where was the D? The Cinderella mystique that was so pervasive just months earlier was suddenly a distant memory.

Not so fast...

After a February 3rd loss, Stevens' Bulldogs ripped off 13 wins in a row including more tournament shockers over Pittsburgh (27,500 students), Wisconsin (42,000 students), and Florida (50,000 students). Just like that they're back! The little school of 4,400 students. Final Four. Deja Vu. Perhaps it's time to forget about their size, conference, and the underdog side of this whole thing and realize that Brad Stevens has a budding basketball powerhouse under construction. I'm prepared to do that, starting now.

While the captivating Butler run has certainly brought us full circle, is it possible that their Semi-Final opponent's story could be even more remarkable?

Late in that same month of April in the Year of our Lord 2010, the NCAA announced the tournament field would be expanded from 65 to 68 teams. The expansion would allow an additional four teams into the tournament that in past years would have been snubbed. The "Last Four In" games played in Dayton were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week of the tournament, and TruTV would be the network.

Everyone had their opinion on the possible ramifications of the addition of extra teams. All February long, we blasted the 'weak' bubble, rendering every possible bubble team unqualified for the tournament altogether! 

That sacred Wednesday night which was once solely devoted to bracket research was now to be compromised by a play-in game, and a "throw-away" game featuring two teams one of which Jay Bilas softly suggested had no business being a tournament team. As Verne would say, "My, Oh My." But, who could have fathomed that after spending 10-15 minutes trying to find TruTV on our tubes, that we'd watching a Final Four team in action that night??

In all honesty, Virginia Commonwealth must have had Lady Luck on its side in that selection room. On the year, they were 4-6 against other NCAA Tournament teams with wins over UCLA, Wofford, George Mason, Old Dominion. The Rams had dropped six of eleven games heading into Selection Sunday. I only rehash that 14 day-old story to enhance the improbable drama that has since unfolded. 

I'll let their super-suave head coach Shaka Smart tell you their story since March 16.

Today, they 'swagged' all over the Jayhawks to the tune of 12 3-pointers and a 10-point Regional Final victory, forever cementing their place next to George Mason on the list of magical NCAA Tournament runs. I tell you what, it's time the Colonial Athletic Association gets its deserved props.

If a Chinese national tuned in Sunday afternoon to watch Kansas and VCU, having no previous knowledge of program history, school size, or ranking, he or she would have seen VCU as by far the more talented team. It really wasn't close. The Rams showed their NBA size with a 7-foot freshman, three 6'9'' forwards, a 6'8'' kid, their heady senior point guard with a penchant for airballs, clutch threes, and dropping dimes, and most of all the confidence of a team that has been deep in the Big Dance before... a place they definitely have not been.

Sure, VCU got lucky with their bid into the field of 68, but they have certainly created their own luck and proven more than worthy of being a Final Four team. This week's Final Four story lines will likely feature the contrast of UConn and Kentucky, two programs steeped in basketball history, with two upstart programs delighted to be alive on college hoops grandest stage.

Make no mistake about it, though. Both Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart know they've got teams that can win the title and they've got their boys believing the same thing.

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