Friday, April 01, 2011

Bracket Breakdown: 2011 Final Four Semi-finals

The Final Four has gathered in Houston for a pair of Saturday semi-final games at Relaint Stadium that will determine the participants in Monday's National Championship game.

Here's a brief breakdown of the contestants and analysis of both games.

(11) VCU (28-11) vs. (8) Butler (27-9), 6:09 pm ET - Judging by the prevailing wisdom of both the bracket analyzers and the tournament committee itself, neither of these teams was supposed to make it this far. It's rare to get any team in with a higher seed than 6, much less get two in the same year.

The basketball gods have bestowed an additional gift by having them play each other, though both have proven their mettle against some of the best teams in the tournament.

VCU is by far the more athletic and energetic of the two teams. They will look to speed up the pace of the game and take advantage of any and all Butler mistakes, though the Bulldogs are a fairly disciplined bunch. VCU will probably opt to contest more than a few inbounds passes, a weakness of Butler's exposed against Wisconsin.

Additionally, VCU's inside presence may be more than Butler's Matt Howard and Andrew Smith can handle. VCU's Jamie Skeen, Juvonte Reddic and Toby Veal go 6'9", 6'9" and 6'8", respectively. While Howard will handle his end of the deal, Smith, though 6'11", is only a sophomore and doesn't possess the experience of the VCU forwards though freshman Khyle Marshall has given valuable minutes inside.

Both teams play solid man-to-man and zone defenses. VCU has been making a living at the 3-point line, with Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell doing most of the damage. Butler's Shelvin Mack will have to be in top form to counter the VCU attack, especially speedy Joey Rodriguez.

Take nothing away from Butler. They are well-coached and know how to win close games. They currently possess the nation's longest active winning streak, at 13 games. VCU is a 2 1/2-point favorite and has more depth than the Bulldogs.

(4) Kentucky (29-8) vs. (3) Connecticut (30-9), 8:49 pm ET - Kentucky head coach John Calipari has - for the second year in a row - taken a group of talented freshmen and molded them into a cohesive unit capable of taking on any team in the country. Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are all freshman and also are the team's three leading scorers. Juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins compose the remainder of the starting five, all of whom score in double figures besides Liggins, who checks in at 8.8 ppg.

The interior is the domain of Josh Harrleson, who has been magnificent on defense in the post and has contributed well to Kentucky's flow offense. Of all the teams in America, Kentucky probably has the most number of players who can make individual plays, a fact not lost on the Connecticut Huskies.

For UConn, the ball started rolling in Maui, when the Huskies unveiled Kemba Walker and won the Maui Classic, with wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky, the final of the tourney going in an 84-67 rout, to Connecticut. The team the Huskies beat in Maui bears resemblance only in the most superficial way. Kentucky's players have matured considerably since that December date and are much more of a team than a bunch of individual future stars, as was the case back then.

UConn's game comes down to Walker, almost unavoidably and the Huskies seem to thrive on the tournament environment, having run through the Big East with five straight wins and four more in the NCCAs. Kentucky, however, also won the SEC tournament and is riding a 10-game streak.

Everybody on Kentucky will have a chance to guard Kemba Walker, as slick and elusive as he is. Walker has proven to be unguardable by a single player and his presence and quickness puts extra pressure on opposing defenses. He's been aided by the emergence of freshman Jeremy Lamb, the team's second leading scorer, who has come of age through the rigors of the tournament. He's a future star in his own right and will match up well against the Wildcats.

The Huskies will also have plenty to say on drives to the hoop and in the rebounding department with solid Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu responsible for clogging the lane. The inside game will be very physical and not much of an advantage for either team.

The oddsmakers have Kentucky a 2 1/2-point favorite, hinged upon the Wildcats' ability to hold Walker in check and UConn's defense, which must contend every shot. Team depth favors the Huskies who will go nine deep into their bench, while Kentucky prefers to go with a six or seven man rotation.

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