(The Sports Network) For the second straight year, the Butler Bulldogs have reached the Final Four, and their unlikely opponent this time around are the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The winner moves on to Monday's national championship game to face either Kentucky or Connecticut.
Virginia Commonwealth, which plays its basketball out of the Colonial Athletic Association, had the longest road of any Final Four combatant, as the Rams started the 2011 NCAA Tournament as one of the teams forced to play in the "First Four", taking out USC (59-46) in that clash. They then got past sixth- seeded Georgetown (74-56), third-seeded Purdue (94-76), 10th-seeded Florida State (72-71 in OT) and finally top-seeded Kansas (71-61). The win over the Jayhawks not only earned VCU its first-ever trip to the Final Four, but also tied the school-record for most victories in a season (28). Head coach Shaka Smart is 55-20 in his two seasons at the helm, and a perfect 10-0 in postseason play. VCU, which is only the third 11 seed (George Mason and LSU) to play in the national semifinals, is 8-2 on neutral floors this season, and the Rams are a game over .500 all-time in the NCAA Tournament at 10-9.
"What more can I say about this group of guys? Every time this group is doubted, they respond in an overwhelming way and today was no different," Coach Smart said after the upset win over Kansas. "There was not one media outlet that picked us to win today, but those 14 guys knew that they could and that's all that matters."
Butler earned its way to another national semifinal by taking out Old Dominion (60-58), top-seeded Pittsburgh (71-70), No. 4 seed Wisconsin (61-53) and second-seeded Florida (74-71 in OT). The Bulldogs, who bring a 13-game win streak into this affair, are 9-1 in their last 10 NCAA Tournament games and are 17-10 all-time in the event. Butler, an eight seed and the class of the Horizon League, is 8-1 in neutral-site games this season, and the team has taken down a slew of ranked opponents recently, doing so three times over a seven-day period last week, and eight times in the last 10 meetings with such foes in recent years.
Paying homage not only to his players and the rest of his coaching staff, but to Billy Donovan and his Florida Gators, Butler head coach Brad Stevens was humble in giving credit where it was due following last weekend's action, "I'm incredibly proud of these guys. They carried their coach today in a big way. I was saying I got out-coached big time. But our assistants did a great job and our players did a great job...just a special group. We're really lucky that they're Butler Bulldogs."
Butler won the only previous meeting between these two teams back in 1970, taking a 99-97 decision at home in Indianapolis.
Southwest Regional Tournament MVP Jamie Skeen led all scorers with 26 points, and he grabbed 10 rebounds and came up with two steals in VCU's upset of No. 1 seed Kansas last weekend. Brandon Rozzell was the only other Ram to reach double figures with 12 points, as the team's defensive effort was the star of the show. Kansas, which came in averaging better than 81 ppg and led the country in field goal percentage, was held to a season-low 61 points and just 36 percent shooting from the field, which included a dreadful 2-of-21 effort from three-point range. The Jayhawks, who got double-doubles from the Morris brothers, went just 15-of-28 at the free-throw line, compared to a 17-of-22 showing by the Rams. Skeen leads the team on the year with his 15.4 ppg, while Bradford Burgess is hot on his heels with 14.3 ppg. Rozzell and Joey Rodriguez add 11.8 and 10.5 ppg, respectively, for VCU, which puts up 71.8 ppg on the strength of its 37.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Shelvin Mack scored 27 points, including five in overtime, in leading Butler to a three-point overtime win over Florida last weekend. Mack, who put up 30 against Pitt last week and hit a late bucket to ice the win over Wisconsin, was named the Southeast Region's Most Outstanding Player. All-Southeast Region honoree Matt Howard chipped in with 14 points against the Gators, while freshman Khyle Marshall added 10 for the Bulldogs, who erased an 11-point deficit in the second half to pull even at the end of regulation. Butler, which is 17-3 this season when hitting eight or more three-point field goals in a game, went 9-of-33 from long range in the win while claiming a 41-34 rebounding advantage. Florida was just 3-of-14 from beyond the arc. Howard (16.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Mack (15.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.6 apg) are the only two players averaging double figures for coach Stevens' club, which generates 72.1 ppg in shooting 44.3 percent overall, 35.5 percent from downtown and 72.7 percent from the foul line.
It's about to strike midnight for one of these two Cinderella teams, and while VCU has a ton of momentum and the will of a nation on its side, the experience gained by Butler last year should be enough to help the Bulldogs reach their second straight national title game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Butler 76, Virginia Commonwealth 71