Elite Eight Sunday Recap: VCU and Kentucky Complete Quartet

    
March 28th, 2011
The opinion that this season provided the NCAA Tournament with the weakest bubble in history did not stop many pundits from bad-mouthing the VCU Rams. Instead of worrying about what the experts thought of their inclusion Shaka Smart's team moved forward, taking care of USC, Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State to get to Sunday's Southwest Region final. Top-seed Kansas awaited VCU and the Jayhawks got off to a quick start, scoring the first six points of the game. But that did little to deter the Rams, who took control of the game and despite a second-half Kansas rally won 71-61 to earn their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

VCU stayed the course despite the early deficit, making nine of their first thirteen three-pointers to wrestle away control of the game in impressive fashion. Startled by the shift in momentum Kansas became rushed and fell behind by as many as 18 points in the first half before heading into the locker room down 41-27 at the break. The Rams defensively were able to get at the Jayhawks, forcing eight turnovers and taking full advantage of a team that seemed more prepared to show up for a coronation as opposed to a street fight.

Kansas shot 31.2% from the field in the first half, making just two of eleven from three while also missing seven of their twelve free throws. "When your shots aren't falling you have to defend and have something to fall back on," said Kansas guard Tyrel Reed after the game. "We didn't do the best job in the first half and dug ourselves a hole."

To their credit Kansas fought back early in the second half, going on a 17-3 run to cut the deficit to just two points. But the Rams refused to wilt, pushing their lead back up to ten points in the next four minutes. From that point forward the Jayhawks would get no closer than five, ultimately adding to their legacy under Bill Self of dropping NCAA Tournament games to lower-seeded teams. But Sunday's result is all about VCU, who didn't even get together as a team to watch the selection show two weeks ago. Now they'll be headed to Houston to take on Southeast Region champ Butler next Saturday night.

"They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think," said Coach Smart. "And that's our theme throughout the NCAA Tournament since we were selected. And 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."

Joining VCU, Butler and Connecticut in Houston will be the Kentucky Wildcats, who won the East 76-69 over two-seed North Carolina in Newark. Kentucky shot 6-for-11 from three in the first half and also got John Henson into foul trouble in taking a 38-30 lead into the break. Henson picked up three fouls in the first 20 minutes and was ineffective for much of the contest, finishing with four points, nine rebounds and no blocks in 23 minutes of action.

All five starters reached double figures for the Wildcats with Brandon Knight's 22 leading the way, and it didn't hurt that Kentucky limited Kendall Marshall to 2-for-10 shooting while Harrison Barnes needed 19 shots to score 18 points. Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with 21 points and nine rebounds. Offensively Kentucky won the game from the three-point line, making 12 of 22 to UNC's frigid 3-for-16. Thanks to that percentage the Wildcats were far more efficient (110.1 efficiency) than UNC opponents managed to be throughout the season (94.5).

Once again veterans stepped up for the Wildcats, with Josh Harrellson battling inside with the North Carolina big men for 38 minutes (12 points, eight rebounds) and DeAndre Liggins doing an exemplary job defensively on Marshall in addition to making a huge three late. Liggins got the start for Doron Lamb with the task being to slow down the freshman point guard and he did just that. With a six-man rotation one could argue that Kentucky has six starters, but most importantly all have been ready to contribute in some form in each of the Wildcats' four wins.

"[Liggins] defends, he is unselfish, he makes plays, his skills are improved," remarked head coach John Calipari after the game. "I'm really proud -- and I am on him now. I am on him to do the right things and if he screws up, he knows he will be there. But he performs. He is not afraid. He is making plays."

Next up for Kentucky is Connecticut, who soundly whipped them 84-67 in the title game of the Maui Invitational behind an outstanding performance from Kemba Walker. But both teams are different now, as UConn's youngsters and Kentucky's veterans have stepped up as the season's worn on. The same progression stands for Butler and VCU as well. There may not be a great deal of NBA Draft lottery-level talent at Reliant Stadium but there's no disputing the fact that each team has earned their ticket to the Final Four.

Notable Performances

F Jamie Skeen (VCU)
26 points and 10 rebounds in the Rams' win over Kansas.

G Brandon Knight (Kentucky)
22 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals in the Wildcats' win over North Carolina.

F Tyler Zeller (North Carolina)
21 points and nine rebounds in the Tar Heels' loss to Kentucky.

F Marcus Morris (Kansas)
20 points and 16 rebounds in the Jayhawks' loss to VCU.

Final Four Schedule (Saturday, April 2nd)
6:09 PM (11) VCU vs. (8) Butler (CBS)
8:49 PM (4) Kentucky vs. (3) Connecticut (CBS)