Semifinals are a startling contrast
Two different worlds.
On Saturday night at approximately 6:09 p.m. ET, the ball will be tossed up and a pair of teams – Butler and VCU – will play for the right to go to the national championship game.
It’ll be the undercard of sorts, a game between a pair of mid-major, Cinderella’ish teams loaded with under-recruited players and likeable coaches.
You’ll have four-year guys such as Butler’s Matt Howard on the court, a kid who chose the Bulldogs over Xavier years ago when he decided that playing at the highest level wasn’t nearly as important as fit.
Howard’s teammates, Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant, were passed over by every high-major program in the country.
Kids like Joey Rodriguez of VCU, who had not too long ago given up on his dreams of playing professionally when he opted to transfer to Rollins College following the coaching change that brought Shaka Smart to Richmond.
Then a few hours later, the heavyweights will take to the court.
You’ll have kids like Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight, a 4.0 student who could have played anywhere in the country – and has been courted by agents and runners for the last couple of years.
Guys like UConn’s Kemba Walker, who may not have been all that highly recruited out of high school – but he’s turned into college basketball’s most recognizable name and face besides The Jimmer.
Highly rated players all over the court from UConn’s Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith to Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.
Talk about opposite ends of the train tracks.
These two games couldn’t be more different.
You’ve got Butler’s baby-faced 34-year-old Brad Stevens, who is about as clean-cut as it gets, against Smart – VCU’s up-and-coming 33-year-old head coach.
Sit with either of them for hours and you’re likely never to hear a controversial word.
Even when I ran into Stevens last summer in a parking lot in Las Vegas for a summer tournament, he opted to politely decline answering my question on a particular overseas recruit from which he had just received a commitment.
Because it was against the rules.
"I can’t comment on that," he said with a straight face.
Smart is as well-spoken as Stevens and it’s difficult to picture anything flammable coming out of his mouth. He works the media well – and is cognizant of every word he utters.
He still carries his luggage and even helps load the plane on the tarmac. He makes about 10 percent of what Kentucky coach John Calipari earns.
"He’s a normal guy," VCU assistant Will Wade said. "No ego."
That’s not exactly the case with the two coaches that will face one another in the nightcap.
There’s a reason why Jim Calhoun and John Calipari have so much disdain for one another – and it’s not just because Calhoun wouldn’t play him back in the days when Calipari was down the road at UMass.
It’s not because Calipari stole Marcus Camby from Calhoun’s backyard, either.
These guys don’t hold back, don’t shut their mouths. They say things they later regret – and don’t really think twice about it.
It’s why Bruce Pearl and Calipari hated one another. It’s why Rick Pitino and Calipari don’t get along. It’s why many of the Big East coaches aren’t exactly pals with Calhoun.
Calipari and Calhoun are similar.
Both have had their share of difficulty with the NCAA. Calhoun will sit three games next season due to an NCAA ruling that involved UConn and a former manager turned agent while Teflon John has watched two former programs vacate Final Four appearances from his tenure.
They are hardheaded. Egotistical. Sure, Calipari is more savvy in how he handles himself, but neither one is overly talented at biting their tongue.
They both enjoy confrontation.
There’s a contrast in players as well, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some terrific kids in the nightcap. The majority of those at Butler and VCU haven’t been stroked their entire lives like the ones who wear the Kentucky and UConn uniforms.
Knight is a student-athlete and both Walker and highly touted UConn sophomore Alex Oriakhi are phenomenal kids.
But the culture is different at VCU and Butler than it is in Lexington, Ky., or Storrs, Conn.
The tip-off to the Final Four symbolizes what college basketball strives to become Two unassuming coaches and a bunch of kids who are in it for the right reasons.
Pure, clean. Good.
The nightcap, in many ways, illustrates what’s wrong with the game.