For the second consecutive year the always eager to please Brad Stevens will comply with our need for strong visual contrasts and face a Hall of Fame coach born in the 1940s in the national championship game.
(8) Butler 70, (11) Virginia Commonwealth 62 [66 possessions]
The mid-major that no one was talking about three weeks ago -- the one that got hot at the right time -- went cold in the vastness of Reliant Stadium, and recorded its worst shooting of the tournament.
I speak of course of Butler, which couldn't buy a make to save its life last night. Shelvin Mack was brilliant, needing just 11 shots to record 24 points, but his teammates were a combined 13-of-48. (Although here's a shout-out to Zach Hahn, who scored his eight points consecutively and did a nice job defending Joey Rodriguez.) Maybe Greg Anthony is onto something. The Bulldogs really do play well even when their shots aren't falling. Against VCU playing "well" meant a robust presence in two areas: on the offensive glass and at the free throw line. In Horizon League offensive rebounding terms, Brad Stevens' team looked like Illinois-Chicago -- yes, that's a compliment. Meanwhile Matt Howard got to the line 12 times and made 11 of his freebies. On a night when he was 3-of-10 from the field, that was important.
The Rams, on the other hand, have actually suffered through worse shooting in the NCAA tournament than what we saw last night. Against USC in Dayton, Shaka Smart's team made just 31 percent of their twos and netted an effective FG percentage of 41.5. Last night's figure, on the other hand, was 46.6. The Bulldogs had no answer for Jamie Skeen (27 points on 17 shots) and Bradford Burgess hit four of seven threes, but otherwise the team from Richmond struggled from the field.
When Skeen was fouled by Ronald Nored in the act of draining a three with 2:32 left in the game, it seemed like a turning point. A made free throw would have cut what just seconds before had been a seven-point lead down to three. But Skeen missed the free throw, and over the ensuing and decisive 130 seconds BU outscored VCU 9-2. Only a three from Burgess with 11 seconds left in the contest got the final score down to the federally mandated single-digit margin required of all Butler tournament games. It may not have been their worst shooting of the tournament, but it was indeed the Rams' worst offensive output. In part because Butler dominated their defensive glass so completely, Stevens' team held their opponent to a mere 0.94 points per possession.
VCU ends the tournament having shot 42.7 percent on their threes, and 43.4 percent on their twos, thus narrowly averting what we in the biz refer to as a team-wide Greg Paulus (shooting a higher percentage on your threes than on your twos). Until another team makes this same First Four-to-Final Four journey, the Rams will be the answer to a trivia question as the only team ever to win five NCAA tournament games and not play for the national championship.
(3) Connecticut 56, (4) Kentucky 55 
Kentucky did everything right on defense. Facing an opponent that has thrived in the postseason thanks to offensive rebounding and free throws, John Calipari's team shut off both those valves. Kemba Walker shot just six free throws, and as a team UConn attempted just 11. This was easily the worst outing the Huskies' offense has recorded in either the Big East or NCAA tournaments.
Unfortunately for UK fans, their offense was even worse. UConn made sure of that. If Terrence Jones does enter the draft -- he's projected as a lottery pick -- his last college game will stand out as a strange mix of extremes. Contrary to what you may have heard in real time, when Josh Harrellson went to the bench with two fouls it did not figure to hurt the Wildcats on the defensive glass. Jones made this point beautifully, pulling down 15 rebounds, 11 of them on the defensive end. His 0-of-5 performance at the line, however, may haunt fans in Lexington for some time to come.
It's been said of Jim Calhoun's 2011 team that they lack the dominant NBA-track shot-blocker that we're used to seeing in a Connecticut uniform, and this is certainly true. But while the personnel has changed, the results are beginning to look really familiar. For years teams in Storrs have not only refused to allow opponents to make twos, they have also refused to foul. Last night Kentucky made 34 percent of their twos and attempted 12 free throws. Brandon Knight was 6-of-23 from the floor. Harrellson entered the game having made 76 percent of his twos, but against the Huskies he attempted just six shots in 28 minutes.
As for that strange sequence in the second half where there was no stoppage of play and the under-8 timeout didn't occur, officially, until there was 2:09 left on the clock, it may have been less decisive than it seemed at the time. Kentucky entered that sequence trailing by four, and when Calipari was forced to burn a timeout with 4:09 left his team still trailed by four points. Certainly those minutes represented a lost opportunity for the Wildcats, but there was nothing about the personnel on the floor that mandated UK would tire before Connecticut in the absence of whistles. Actually the Cats had Doron Lamb and Harrellson in the game, and both should have been relatively spry. (Both would finish the evening having logged less than 30 minutes.) And while Knight, officially, played the full 40 (though he was actually given a breather by Calipari), so too of course did Walker.
In other words, Kentucky had its chances. The last and best one came with Connecticut up 54-52, and 16 seconds remaining. That's when Shabazz Napier, perhaps unduly content to dribble a lot given his youth and the circumstances, gave the ball back to UK. Coming out of their timeout the Cats got the ball to DeAndre Liggins, who missed a long three with six seconds left. Napier then sank two free throws, before a buzzer-beating consolation three from Knight put the finishing touches on a deceptive-looking final score.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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