It may not be what CBS and the major sports media want to focus on, but the most compelling storyline at the Final Four must surely be that of the good versus evil as represented by the four coaches. Butler’s Brad Stevens has his team playing hard and smart – a reflection of an unflappable coach taking the mid-major Bulldogs to their second straight Final Four. VCU’s Shaka Smart has the cool name, and his team has been clutch throughout their improbable run. As has been so often repeated, the Rams weren’t even supposed to make the tourney, yet here they are. These two mid-majors show what’ right in college hoops – that commitment, clutch veteran players, and just the right blend of talent and tenacity can get you to the final weekend.
Then you have the other two Coaches: UConn’s Calhoun and Kentucky’s Calipari. Talk about your forces of evil. Of course these two guys aren’t the only coaches cheating in college hoops, but they’re damned fine poster boys.
Calhoun has won two national titles, and the Huskies have been a consistent top team from the Big East. Huskies players also consistently find themselves on the police blotter, and Calhoun has a three-game suspension coming his next year for recruiting violations with additional sanctions likely. It’s not his first dance with the infractions committee, and yet the NCAA has never really smacked UConn that hard. And he’s the more likable one.
Because then you have Calipari. The coach wins games and recruits players, no doubt. And then the schools have to vacate those titles. Cal has now brought three different teams to the Final Four, although both the UMass and Memphis appearances now have great big asterisks beside them. Calipari has shown equal skill in transitioning guys to the NBA and leaving town just ahead of the posse (UMass to the NBA, Memphis to Kentucky). He’s also proven adept at pinning the more egregious violations on his assistants. Illini fans are still smarting over UK’s ability to pluck the best center out of Chicago this last year (never mind the allegations of payoffs to the recruit’s father). Kentuckians are reveling now, but just like Tennessee and Bruce Pearl or Indiana and Kelvin Sampson, it’s only a matter of time before the NCAA comes calling. At least Kentucky is spending record amounts on Calipari’s contract – this in a state that could certainly put those public education dollars to good use elsewhere.
We’re looking forward to the actual games. Kentucky plays harder and better than last year’s loaded team, even if they don’t have as much talent. In spite of the constant ESPN braying about UConn and the Big East, Kemba Walker is fun to watch. But all right-minded college hoops fans from the rest of the country will surely unite behind the VCU-Butler winner. It’s March melodrama at its finest.
We give the upstarts a one in three chance to come away with the title outright. But we’ll increase those odds to two-out-of-three that Butler or VCU end up as the official champs. That would of course take into account the likelihood of UConn or Kentucky winning the final game but vacating the trophy at a future date.