How four coaches view the Final Four
In a FOXSports.com exclusive, four NCAA Division I basketball coaches provide early scouting reports on the Final Four teams.
Butler Bulldogs (27-9)
• How they got here: Butler’s improbable journey back to the Final Four is as impressive of an accomplishment as college basketball has witnessed when you consider just how hard it is for smaller schools to get in and win in the tournament. That success is fueled by a group committed to defending and suffocating the lead-role scorers on other teams. Consider that in New Orleans, Butler limited Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer to a combined 7 for 31 from the field. Florida’s Irving Walker and Chandler Parsons totaled 3 for 19 from the floor. Holding those four great players to 10-for-50 shooting (20 percent) was no accident. Butler’s success at stopping the key guys of their opponents has them back in the national spotlight.
• Strengths: Coach Brad Stevens would be the first to credit his players as his team’s greatest asset. However, his brain is the best strength they have. He has developed and orchestrated game plans that gave those players a chance to win. The high basketball IQ that permeates their roster allows Butler to make all the right plays and avoid many of those dumb or bad ones that cost teams wins. Their defense is also a great strength, and they take pride in being hard to play against. Offensively,
• Weaknesses: Florida exposed what Wisconsin could not — Butler’s interior defense. As strong as the Bulldogs are on that end, they are not as big and can be exposed by front-line players who can finish. Both teams had some success applying pressure in the backcourt, and they will surely see some more of that in Houston. Scholarship limits created the great parity we have in college hoops, and few teams have great depth. Butler is not immune to that issue. Foul trouble or, heaven forbid, another sprained ankle could be devastating.
• Key matchups: Just as Butler had great success stopping the stars in the regionals, VCU will be gearing up its defense to stop Mack and Howard. Butler has a great unit, but the stars have to shine on the big stage. VCU will use pressure to create turnovers and disrupt Butler and its two stars. The Rams have mobile defenders to cover Howard away from the goal, which can limit his long-range shooting. But when Mack and Howard bring those defenders away from the goal, the driving lanes and basket open up. But, equally important, Mack and Howard will be forced to defend VCU’s shooting on the other end. Howard has many strengths, but Butler fans better hope defending away from the goal is one of them. It is vital they defend the 3-point line. It might take a zone to do this effectively without picking up fouls.
• Signature play: Mack and Howard both shoot the 3-pointer well. Coach Stevens does a great job using them in pick-and-pop actions or spacing them on the weak side to open the floor for others. Either way, it will be important to defend this action if they really need a basket. Butler’s team is loaded with guts, and the winner in each player makes them a dangerous team to face late in games. Each guy understands the way he can make a basket and also how each of his teammates can score. It is most impressive to see how they all play so unselfishly toward the team goal of getting a basket.
• They’ll cut down the nets if: Butler continues to make timely offensive plays with good defense. Mack and Howard both must shoot the ball well and their defense has to continue to solve the stars of the teams they face. At this point in the season, tendencies for both groups are defined, so good defense is expected. VCU will offer matchup challenges and make it harder to maintain that great level of Butler’s defense. It will likely take a little more offense to climb the ladder Monday night. Butler will have to handle the pressure of VCU on Saturday first before even thinking about playing Monday. With the heart of this group, it would hard to pick against them.
— Mark Fox, Georgia
VCU Rams (28-11)
• How they got here: VCU advances to the Final Four in houston after defeating Florida State and Kansas in the Southwest regional. The Rams won both of their games through their disruptive pressure defense. They never allowed the taller Seminoles and Jayhawks to take advantage of the interior offensive advantage that they both possessed. On offense the Rams took advantage of great play by Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen. Rodriguez controlled the tempo in both games while Skeen proved to be a very difficult inside/outside matchup.
• Strengths: VCU showed its strength throughout the weekend. They are a relentless team, with pressure on both sides of the ball. On defense they are constantly harassing your guards and do not allow you to play in structure. On offense they constantly dribble-drive you from four spots and are always making the extra pass. This weekend was no different than the first, where they took advantage of the 3-point line.
• Weaknesses: While VCU has not shown many weaknesses during the tournament, the season has shown us that at times they are vulnerable. Skeen is the only front-court player with "high major" size. Also they are so reliant on the 3-point line that on nights that the well dries up they struggle.
• Key matchups: In Houston, the key matchup for VCU is Jamie Skeen and Matt Howard. Skeen will have to deal with another inside-out threat that has all the experience that Howard has gained over the past two seasons.
• Signature play: If the game is on the line and VCU needs a basket, look for them to run a high-middle ball screen for Joey Rodriguez. If you don't respect him he will shoot it or drive it and always make the right decision. If you guard him, then the screener will roll with the other "big" lifting and replacing the roller. If you get lost they hit the roll or the "lifter." If you guard that action that's when the fun starts because then the lifter dribble-drives you and they get you on your heels.
• They'll cut down the nets if: VCU can continue to defend and rebound at a high rate, continue making 3s at a high rate and, most important, keep Skeen out of foul trouble.
— Frank Martin, Kansas State
Connecticut Huskies (30-9)
• How they got here: Guard play often defines a team's success in NCAA tournament play. One doesn't have to look any further than the West Regional in this year's tournament for that case to be made. UConn relied on the 1-2 punch of veteran G Kemba Walker and talented frosh Jeremy Lamb, who combined for a staggering 57 percent of their team's scoring in Anaheim. Against SDSU, the backcourt tandem delivered 60 of their team's 74 points and followed that up with 39 of their team's 65 against Arizona to secure a Final Four berth after missing the NCAA tournament a year ago.
• Strengths: UConn has a potent backcourt as was mentioned before. But what strikes me with UConn is their success in tournament play this season. First it was in Maui, where UConn upset top 10 teams (including Kentucky in the championship) on back-to-back nights to claim the Maui Invitational championship. Their run in Madison Square Garden was historic, winning five games in five nights to be crowned champions of the Big East. How can anyone believe this team is tired? Having had so much success in tournament play has to give UConn all the confidence in the world they can get it done. I can't argue.
• Weaknesses: The old adage, "There is no "I" in team" could come into play. Don't be misled, Kemba Walker is extremely unslefish and the best playmaker in the land. But when a team is as reliant as UConn is on Kemba, one off night could be too much to overcome. Kentucky is a very young team but can hurt you in a variety of ways. Not so with UConn. After Kemba, their next two leading scorers are freshmen Lamb and Alex Oriakhi, a defensive presence who averages less than 10 ppg. I still think UConn will be fine. The Huskies' guard play has been incredible. But, make no mistake, that must continue for them to be playing on Monday night.
• Key matchups: Who guards Kemba? In Maui, Coach Cal elected to put DeAndre Liggins and
• Signature play: Down the stretch UConn will go baseline runner for Lamb or Walker in key situations, keep its unskilled bigs on the block and use them to free the runner. But if the game is on the line, every one in America will know who's getting the rock. UConn's favorite set in crunch time features Kemba using a sideline ballscreen primarily set by Oriakhi, who rolls to the rim. They love to run Jeremy Lamb back behind the ballscreen so that if his man helps on the roll, Lamb is a throwback option. This clears more space for the driving Walker as now there are only two teammates on his driving side. Hard to double Kemba because if he senses the trap coming he'll leave before the screen is even set. He's special and any way you can get the ball out of his hands, do it!
• They'll cut down the nets if: ... the magic continues. History has shown that great players, special players, can carry a team to the national title. Magic Johnson, Danny Manning, Carmelo Anthony have all been that guy. I'm not saying Kemba will duplicate their career path beyond college. But what I am saying is that he doesn't have to in order to help lead his team to a national title. If he continues to be Kemba-like this weekend there may be three teams uttering the line from the movie "Apollo 13," "Houston, we have a problem."
— Chris Mack, Xavier
Kentucky Wildcats (29-8)
• How they got here: John Calipari's team upset Ohio State and North Carolina by playing with tremendous poise offensively. The play of senior center Josh Harrellson and freshman point guard Brandon Knight was crucial to their success on offense. Harrellson also was the key to their defensive effort in the Ohio State game. His size and strength allowed the Wildcats to play Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger one on one. Ohio State came into the tournament as the nation’s third-best 3-point shooting team. Playing Sullinger without any help limited the number of threes a disciplined Ohio State could attempt. In both wins in the regional, Kentucky’s tempo on offense might have been the most impressive part of its game. The Wildcats ran opportunistically and were also able to execute their half-court offense at a very high level. The Wildcats probably play two-man basketball better than anyone in the country. Whether it is the use of a dribble hand off (which also could mean a backdoor cut) or a ball screen, Kentucky spaces the floor very well by keeping the other three guys far enough on the other side of the floor where it is hard to bring help. On the weak side are shooters Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Terrence Jones, when Jones is not involved in the two-man game.
• Strengths: Kentucky understands the value of good shot selection and playing at multiple speeds on offense. If you discount the fact they do not play a match-up zone, the Wildcats remind me of the great Temple teams of John Chaney. Their offense absolutely complements their defense. This understanding of making your opponent work on the defensive end could not have been more evident in the regional final vs. North Carolina. The Heels battled and played well. However, they never were able to get on one of those long runs of transition basketball where they thrive. Kentucky makes sure to take its time and get the shots for go-to guys Knight and Jones. The two have combined to attempt 938 of the 'Cats 2,121 field goal attempts through 37 games. They also utilize the threat of Lamb’s 3-point shooting ability and Harrellson’s ability to finish at the rim off the bounce or with stick backs. Defensively, they will not extend and rarely will they double-team the ball. They want to keep a defender in the chest of his opponent as much as possible.
• Weaknesses: Lack of depth could hurt Kentucky if you get the Wildcats into an up-tempo game. However in order to do that, you must force them into bad shots or you must make a high percentage of your shots so you can get into your full-court pressure. Given the fact that the timeouts and the halftimes during the NCCA tournament are longer, this format only strengthens Calipari’s Wildcats. Getting Kentucky into foul trouble is the only thing left for opponents to hope for to weaken this ballclub.
• Key matchups: The matchup to watch in the UConn-Kentucky game is DeAndre Liggins vs. Kemba Walker. This seems like the logical matchup because it allows Calipari to save leading scorer Knight from having to chase around Walker. When the teams squared off in the Maui Classic, the Wildcats were a young team just getting to know one another and understanding their roles. Walker went for 29 in an 84-67 blowout win in the final. If Liggins can be as disruptive to Walker as he was to Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, Calipari’s team will be in great shape. Of course, Walker will be much more of a challenge than the Buckeyes' freshman point guard. He will test Liggins with his step-back jump shot and outstanding shot fakes. If Walker one-on-one is not tough enough, Liggins will have to battle thorough screens set by UConn bigs Charles Okwandu and Alex Oriakhi. Good luck to anyone attempting to stop the player on the most magical March run since Danny Manning in 1988!
• Signature play: If the Wildcats need a bucket they will run some sort of two-man game, probably from the left wing with Knight and Jones. Knight seems to prefer going right to set up his shot. Jones' ability to pop for a 3-pointer, drive after popping or roll to the rim makes the Knight-Jones combination very hard to guard. This “go-to play,” like the rest of Kentucky’s game, is simple but very effective.
• They'll cut down the nets if: Kentucky maintains its ability to control the tempo of the basketball game. By controlling the tempo, Kentucky will reduce the number of possessions in the game. The lower number of possessions, the less likely that physical fatigue and fouls can work against the Wildcats. They also force teams to guard deep into the shot clock which mentally wears down most of their opponents. Their shot selection all year has defused the running attack of most teams. Regardless of their showing in during the tournament’s final weekend, John Calipari did an outstanding job this season. Bringing together young players Knight, Jones and Lamb and getting them to mesh with veterans Harrellson, Liggins and Miller just might be the best coaching job of his career.
— Paul Hewitt, former Georgia Tech coach