Final Foursome’s incredible journeys

The day arrived first for Butler. It was Feb. 3, and the Bulldogs had an eight-point cushion with less than four minutes remaining at Youngstown State. The two-game losing skid in Horizon League play was about to end.

Then it happened: Youngstown finished the game on a 10-0 run, sending Butler to its third straight loss and a 6-5 record in the league standings.

There’s no shame in losing to Youngstown, unless you’re a team that went to the national championship game the previous season and this was your fifth Horizon League loss, with seven regular-season conference games still on the board.

Kentucky was virtually eliminated from the conversation 20 days after Butler, when the Wildcats dropped a road contest to an Arkansas squad that later canned its head coach.

This young, thin group of ‘Cats – who lacked mental toughness and any sort of leadership – just couldn’t win away from Rupp Arena. In fact, there was just one road victory since the calendar changed to 2011 – and that was in Columbia against a bad South Carolina team.

Three days after burying John Calipari & Co., VCU also was left for dead. Shaka Smart’s group had dropped its fourth game in five contests – this one at home at the Siegel Center in Richmond.

This team, one tabbed to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Association, clearly was underachieving – and heading in the wrong direction. The NIT might have been a stretch the way this was going. More realistically, this was a group likely bound for the College Basketball Invitational, the bottom of the sport’s postseason tournament barrel.

Finally, we gave up on UConn. It took longer than the rest of the trio, but we knew it would happen eventually, that Kemba Walker’s back finally would give out after he had to carry the Huskies for nearly four months.

UConn hit rock bottom on March 5 after a Senior Day home loss to Notre Dame, one that was supposed to be a celebration after honoring the seniors and also Walker – who took part in the festivities as a junior.

Instead, it felt like a burial.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Walker said to me after that loss. “But we need to get it back. Somehow.”

UConn got its swagger back in the Big East tournament by reeling off an unprecedented five wins in five consecutive days.

“We needed this desperately,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun told me moments after watching his team celebrate the Big East tournament title.

Butler hasn’t lost since that day in Youngstown.

“We came from a long way down, a long way down,” Butler senior forward Matt Howard told me after punching his second straight ticket to the Final Four. “I can’t really even tell you how I was feeling after that Youngstown (loss) about two months ago. It was really frustrating; I couldn’t understand what was going on.”

Kentucky hasn’t tasted defeat since leaving Fayetteville.

“I wouldn’t have thought this was possible two months ago,” Wildcats big man Josh Harrellson admitted just prior to snipping the nets in Newark, N.J., on Sunday night.

And VCU somehow made its way into the Big Dance and has pulled off the ultimate shocker, winning five games – a victory over USC in the inaugural First Four to kick things off and a stunner over No. 1 Kansas to earn a spot in Houston this week.

No one could have written this story. Not even in a season in which there was a notable lack of powerhouse teams and we knew to expect the unexpected could we have anticipated this.

I mean, who would have figured that last year’s darlings, Butler, would be back in the Final Four?

These guys were fun to watch a year ago, but the Bulldogs had returned to normal mid-major status on April 14, 2010. That was the day talented forward Gordon Hayward, who wound up being a lottery pick, announced he was leaving school early for the NBA.

UConn was supposed to be almost just as irrelevant this season. The only reason Huskies Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun didn’t retire, many thought, was because he wanted to go out on his own terms, instead of in the midst of an NCAA investigation.

But why in the world would he want to come back and coach this team? He had lost seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards – and returned a team led by an erratic, shooting point guard in Walker and a bunch of unproven freshmen. But the Huskies started strong, winning the Maui Invitational. Many assumed it was just a matter of time before they came back to earth.

“We heard that all year,” UConn sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi said. “But we’ve proven them wrong.”

Kentucky may have be written off that day in Fayetteville, but the Wildcats’ Final Four dreams truly were put on hold on Nov. 11, when the NCAA ruled that ultra-talented Turkish big man Enes Kanter wouldn’t be allowed to play because he was found to have received impermissible compensation from a pro team in his homeland.

“Permanently ineligible,” read the NCAA’s decision.

VCU finished fourth in the freakin’ CAA and couldn’t even win the league tournament, despite the fact that it was held on the Rams’ home court.

Smart’s team lost four of five in late February, and the team didn’t even get together to watch the NCAA tournament selection show a couple of weeks ago.

Now they’ll be watching, all right. On the court – with three other teams that were written off.