Signs of surprising season were there
When VCU senior Joey Rodriguez arrived at the Dayton airport two-plus weeks ago, the first thing he saw was a sign:
"First Four to Final Four.”
Rodriguez didn't give it much thought. In fact, he chuckled. Rodriguez was far more interested in getting out of Dayton and advancing to the “real tournament” with a win over USC.
"It's crazy,” Rodriguez said.
It sure is. All of it.
No one could have imagined the run 11th-seeded VCU has put together with five consecutive wins to earn a spot in the Final Four. UConn coach Jim Calhoun would have been just as shocked if you'd told him he'd be a participant and not a bystander this weekend.
Butler's Shelvin Mack was admittedly concerned about even getting back to the Big Dance after coming inches away from cutting down the nets a year ago. And Kentucky was supposed to be here either last season or next season. Not this year.
This entire season has been nuts. The tournament has followed suit.
No one could have written this script. But we should have seen the signs.
It started when Purdue star Robbie Hummel went down before the season with a second torn ACL. Then Duke stud freshman Kyrie Irving went down in early December with what appeared to be a season-ending toe injury.
You had a pair of Mountain West teams, BYU and San Diego State, that were mainstays in the Top 10. A fairly unathletic 6-foot-2 white guard named Jimmer became the face of college basketball.
So, this tournament would have to bring the unexpected — and it has.
There is not a single No. 1 or 2 seed in the Final Four for the first time since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Pittsburgh lost to Butler, Arizona smacked a Duke team that had Irving back in the lineup and VCU took care of No. 1 Kansas.
It's been wild. And this Final Four could bring more of the same.
We'll start with the preliminary bout — that's how many are referring to the mid-major matchup between Butler and VCU. Two teams that will have no shot of cutting down the nets here at Reliant Stadium.
Butler has been there, done that. The Bulldogs may have lost lottery pick Gordon Hayward, but they still have Matt Howard and Mack — and 34-year-old superstar coach Brad Stevens.
But don't make the mistake of counting out VCU. I won't after watching the Rams dismantle Georgetown and Purdue — and then making the Morris twins look more like the Olsen twins.
If Shaka Smart's team can continue to make shots from the perimeter, as it has throughout the tournament, there's no reason to believe the Rams won't be playing Monday night with a national championship at stake.
The heavyweight bout is the nightcap, the one just about everyone feels is for the national championship. Two storied programs, Kentucky and UConn, and a pair of coaches who have a clear disdain for one another.
The teams played early in the season in Maui, the Huskies running away with a resounding 17-point victory. But this one could go either way.
Kentucky coach John Calipari's team is different from the one he took to Hawai'i. Heck, his team doesn't look anything like the one he coached a month ago.
These guys have swagger, toughness and even leadership.
But UConn has Kemba.
Huskies junior guard Kemba Walker has carried a young Huskies team most of the season — a guy who could go for 30-plus on any given night.
He's not Jimmer. He's been superior over the past month or so, carrying UConn to a head-scratching Big East tournament crown in which the Huskies won five games in five consecutive days.
Truth be told, none of these four teams was supposed to be anywhere near Houston. They all were supposed to be home watching. But this season of parity, of a lack of dominance, has brought us a Final Four in which anything goes.
I should be shocked to see VCU one win from the national championship game, or Stevens roaming the sidelines for the second consecutive year. There's no way I would have said this was the year for Kentucky to get back to the Final Four or for UConn to be nationally relevant again.
But this season, there's been no shortage of surprises, and don't be shocked if it continues until the nets are snipped.