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March Madness Creates Unexpected NCAA Final Four

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Players from the North Carolina Tar Heels sit on the bench during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats during the east regional final of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Prudential Center on March 27, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Players from the North Carolina Tar Heels sit on the bench during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats during the east regional final of the 2011 NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Prudential Center on March 27, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

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Even in the unpredictable, anything-goes world of March Madness, this is a Final Four nobody saw coming.

Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth — the improbable, the implausible, the unthinkable and the downright unimaginable.

In one game in Houston next Saturday, No. 4 seed Kentucky will play No. 3 Connecticut — not a completely absurd thought as a Final Four matchup, though hardly a trendy pick given their up-and-down regular seasons.

In the other game, it will be No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth against No. 8 Butler — the team that was panned when its name was called on Selection Sunday against the defending national runner-up from a 4,500-student campus whose amazing success story had supposedly run its course.

“It never gets old,” Bulldogs senior Matt Howard said.

Nor does the NCAA tournament, the three-week office pool that places the so-called experts on even footing with those who fill out brackets because they like a team’s colors or its mascot.

Anything goes. Anyone can win.

And never has that been more true than this year.

Four teams with a combined 37 losses and a combined winning percentage of .755, second lowest since 1985.

Four teams whose combined seeding equals 26, breaking the record of 22 in 2000.

Not a single No. 1 seed for only the third time since seeding began in 1979 and, according to STATS LLC., the first time that no 1 or 2 seed will be there.

ESPN, which sponsors one of the country’s biggest bracket tournaments, said that out of 5.9 million entries, only two had this foursome making its way to Houston. President Barack Obama? He went 0 for 4. He had plenty of company.

Kentucky is the new favorite in Vegas, at 8-5. VCU is listed at 7-1 — the longshot in the field, but still quite a bit better than 2500-1, which is where the Rams were listed at the start of the season.

“I think what it does as much as anything, it just puts a spin on the NCAA tournament,” said Kansas coach Bill Self after his top-seeded team lost 71-61 to VCU. “It’s wild. … Because seeds are so overrated. It’s about matchups. And their players could play for us any day.”

VCU (28-11) got up early on Kansas on Sunday and never looked back, another upset winner in a tournament that’s all about underdogs.

“Our guys have done a phenomenal job of putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said.

The Rams are the third No. 11 seed to make the Final Four and the first since George Mason in 2006, which also hails from the Colonial Athletic Conference. But the Rams are the first ever that will need to win seven games — not the usual six — to win the title. They were one of the last at-large teams to make the newfangled 68-team field. They played in the new “First Four” — an extra round that was added as part of the NCAA’s new $10.8 billion TV deal.

Now they’re in the Final Four.

They’ll play Butler (27-9), which slumped through big chunks of this season, a somewhat predictable result after what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Final Four last year, played a scant six miles from their Indianapolis campus.

This year, the destination is Reliant Stadium — 1,036 miles away. The Bulldogs are once again proving that all it takes is good players — not a power conference, a big school or gobs of money — to compete on the biggest stage in college sports.

Last season, in one of the most epic finishes in Final Four history, Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt shot banked off glass, nicked off the rim and barely bounded out to leave Butler two points short of Duke for the national title.

It was a heartbreaker, but maybe one that set the Bulldogs up for a repeat. They’ve won one game by one, another by two and another by three on this year’s road to the Final Four. They beat Florida 74-71 in overtime Saturday to make their second straight trip.

“I think it (last year) helps you with knowing how you need to prepare and what you should do and what you should not do,” Howard said. “I think that will help us.”

Though UConn and Kentucky each struggled at times this season, they’ve had Final Four pedigrees for years (decades when it comes to the Wildcats) and they lived up to them this month.

Connecticut was 9-9 in the Big East this season but won an unprecedented five games in five days in the conference tournament to win its first big trophy of March. The big question was whether the Huskies, led by one of the nation’s best players in Kemba Walker, would have enough energy to keep things going in the NCAA.

Short answer: Yes.

They held off Arizona 65-63 on Saturday and are in the Final Four for the fourth time since 1999.

“I’ve been fortunate over 39 years to have a lot of teams do a lot of different things,” coach Jim Calhoun said, “but never could I imagine the team winning nine games in tournament play in 19 days.”

To win No. 10, UConn (30-9) must beat Kentucky, a team led by three freshmen that might, nonetheless, have its biggest star on the bench. Coach John Calipari joined Rick Pitino as the only coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four.

Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones are the three freshmen who helped the Wildcats (29-8) get to the Final Four for the first time since their 1998 national title team.

This was a team that lost four out of seven earlier this season and looked every bit as close to the tournament bubble as a national championship. Since then, the Wildcats have won 10 straight, including the 76-69 win over North Carolina on Sunday.

“We got Kentucky back,” senior forward Josh Harrelson said. “A lot of people really didn’t think we would be the team we are. We know we struggled early in the season, lost a couple of close games that we should have won. And you know, we really pulled it together as a team. And, you know, we’re back now.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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