The first of four college basketball champions was crowned on Wednesday when Santa Clara won the College Insider.com Tournament title with a 76-69 victory over Iona. These two schools had met only one pervious time, back in the Tournament of Roses at Portland, Oregon in 1960. Santa Clara won that meeting as well, 68-47. The Broncos became the third winner of the CIT, following Old Dominion in 2009 and Missouri St in 2010. This year’s tourney began with a 24-team field, representing 15 different conferences. Santa Clara (24-14) of the WCC won home games vs Northern Arizona and San Francisco, then won at San Francisco, SMU and finally Iona, to win the title. It completes an incredible turnaround from a team which went just 11-21 last season, including 3-11 in WCC play. Iona finished the season 25-12 with 12 wins in its final 14 games. However, the two losses came 62-57 in the MAAC title game and then Wednesday night to the Broncos.
Wichita State joined Santa Clara as a postseason tourney champ in 2011 on Thursday night, winning this year’s NIT with a 66-57 win over top-seeded Alabama. The Shockers own just one double-digit scorer in 6-8 center Durley () but have incredible balance with seven other players averaging between six and 9.5 PPG. The Shockers finished the season 29-8, a school record for wins in a single season, surpassing the 1953-54 squad which went 27-4. Head coach Gregg Marshall, who led Winthrop to seven NCAA tourneys in nine years (1999-2007), gives Wichita St the school’s first-ever postseason tourney title (excluding conference tourneys) in just his fourth year at the Kansas school. Wichita State (in its 12th appearance) becomes the first school from the state of Kansas to win the NIT while Alabama, winless in 11 NIT appearances, lost in the championship game for the second time (lost to Tulsa in 2001).
Either Creighton or Oregon will become this year’s third postseason champ on Friday night in Eugene. The Blue Jays won Game 1 of this best-of-three finals 84-76 at home but then the Ducks returned the favor with a 71-58 home win on Wednesday. Note that Creighton had averaged 88.3 PPG in four home wins in this tourney but was held to just 58 points in Eugene on Wednesday, while Oregon shot 53.4 percent. Dana Altman spent 16 years as Creighton’s head coach, leading the Blue Jays to 11 consecutive 20-win seasons from 1999 through 2009 which included seven NCAA bids but left after the 2009-10 season for Oregon. Friday night, he’ll try to beat his ex-school for Oregon’s first postseason tourney title since the Ducks won the first-ever NCAA tourney back in 1939. Creighton owns a pretty fair history with 16 NCAA appearances plus 10 NITs but doesn’t own a single postseason title. Coach Greg McDermott his hoping his son, the 6-7 freshman forward with the same name, returns to form. McDermott had averaged 23.5 PPG in four CIT home wins for the Blue Jays but had only six points plus two rebounds in 15 foul-plagued minutes Wednesday night.
Final Four: Where will this year’s Final 4 rank when all is said and done? We know that it is just the third to be contested without a No. 1 seed, joining the ones contested in 1980 and 2006. However, it also stands alone as the first-ever Final 4 played without either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed (seeding began in 1979). Speaking of 1979, that year’s Final 4 included DePaul (Independent), Indiana St (MVC), Michigan St (Big 10) and Penn (Ivy League). This year’s Final 4 is the first one since that year to include two schools from non-power conferences in Butler (Horizon League) and Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial Athletic Association). VCU is in its first Final 4 (joining George Mason in 2006 as the only CAA schools to make it this far), Butler is in its second (more on that later), UConn in its fourth (all under Jim Calhoun) and Kentucky in its 14th (tying Kansas) behind only North Carolina’s and UCLA’s 18. John Calipari joins Rick Pitino (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) as the only coach to lead three different schools into the Final 4 (UMass and Memphis prior to Kentucky this year). Let’s hope this trip isn’t vacated.
It’s fairly safe to say that none of the four teams headed to Houston were supposed to here. Let’s start with this year’s least-likely Final 4 team. The 11th-seeded Rams (Southwest region) are arguably the biggest ‘Cinderella team’ of all time. Head coach Shaka Smart was so convinced that his team wasn’t going to get a bid that he didn’t even get them together for the selection show. However, the Rams di get in but just barely. VCU was chosen to play in the first ever at-large play-in game and beat USC, 59-46. The Rams then ran Georgetown (74-56) and Purdue (94-76) off the court with a barrage of three-pointers (made vs the Hoyas and vs the Boilermakers). The Rams followed with a 72-71 OT win over Florida St in the Sweet 16 and then routed Kansas (the last No. 1 seed standing) 71-61 in the Elite 8. The Rams are undersized but athletic and they are loaded with shooters, creating difficult matchups for teams with more traditional lineups. They like to press and get their opponents out of an offensive rhythm. VCU has held five tourney opponents to just 62.0 PPG and offensively, has so overachieved (77.8 PPG over its last four wins), one wonders if it can possibly continue.
On to Butler, the No. 8 seed, representing the Southeast region. Is it fair to still call the Bulldogs a ‘Cinderella team’ considering this is the school’s second straight Final 4 appearance? Getting to back-to-back Final Fours is an amazing accomplishment for any school, let alone one from a non-power conference. The last school to do so is UNLV out of the Big West in 1990 and 1991 but note that the Rebels won the national championship in 1990 (as a No. 1 seed) and were unbeaten in 1991 (and again a No. 1 seed) in their 1991 “return trip.” In comparison, the Bulldogs were a five-seed last year and as previously noted, entered this year’s tourney as an eight-seed. The Bulldogs were just 14-9 (6-5 in the Horizon) back on Feb 3 but haven’t lost since. Butler came into the NCAA tournament on a roll, winning its last nine games (two of which came in winning the Horizon tournament).
Butler beat Old Dominion 60-58 on Matt Howard’s buzzer-beating layup in the first-round win over Old Dominion and then beat No. 1 seed Pittsburgh 71-70 in the second round. The Bulldogs almost blew a 20-point lead against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 but held on to win, 61-54. Then came a 74-71 overtime win over Florida in the Elite 8, coming back from an 11-point deficit in the second half. I would argue that Butler’s consecutive Final 4 appearances (out of the Horizon League) is one of the great accomplishments in NCAA tourney history. Butler lost 61-59 to Duke in last year’s championship game but note that just six previous schools have lost in the national title game one year and returned the next. The only schools to do so and win are North Carolina in 1982 over Georgetown (lost to Indiana in 1981), Duke in 1992 over Michigan (lost to UNLV in 1991) and Kentucky in 1998 over Utah (lost to Arizona in 1997).
Kentucky won the East region as the No. 4 seed. Most felt the Wildcats were a shoo-in to make last year’s Final 4 but John Wall and Co. (the team had five No. 1 picks in last year’s NBA draft) lost in the Elite 8 to West Va, 73-66. Kentucky was awful from three-point range in that game, missing its first 20 attempts and finishing a woeful 4-of-32 (12.5 percent). This wasn’t supposed to be the year that Kentucky made the Final Four, rather it was expected to be an in-between season. The Wildcats struggled away from Rupp Arena, losing six of eight SEC road games while finishing a modest 10-6 in a weak SEC. However, this team has jelled in March. Freshman guards Knight and Lamb plus the 6-8 Jones are now vets, while true vets Miller, Liggins and Harrellson have been terrific. Off wins vs No. 1 overall seed Ohio St and North Carolina, this year’s Wildcats are the Las Vegas favorite to take this year’s title.
UConn was the No. 3 seed in the West region and Jim Calhoun’s team has reached its fourth Final 4 since 1999, all out of the West region (won national titles in 1999 and 2004). Calhoun is the only coach in this year’s Final 4 with a national title and a championship here would move him into an elite group, as he would tie Bob Knight with three all-time titles. He would then trail only Coach K and Adolph Rupp (four each) plus John Wooden (10). The Huskies, picked 10th in the Big East in the preseason, went 12-0 in non-conference play this year but then just 9-9 in the brutal Big East. However, UConn won five straight games to take the Big East tourney (first time a school had done that) and followed with four more NCAA wins (9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS run) to reach Houston. Kemba Walker has averaged 26.3-5.9-5.3 in the team’s nine straight postseason wins and with all due respect to BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, should be this year’s national player of the year. However, I’m sure he’d trade that for UConn’s (and Calhoun's) third national title.
Oregon is favored by four points over Creighton on Friday night in Eugene. Looking ahead to Saturday’s Final 4, Butler is favored over VCU and Kentucky over UConn, each by 2 1/2 points.