Virginia Commonwealth, Butler Lead Improbable NCAA Tournament Final Four

March 28 (Bloomberg) --Shaka Smart and his Virginia Commonwealth University team play Butler University in what may be the most improbable Final Four in the history of college basketball’s national men’s tournament.

VCU extended its most successful season by upsetting the top-seeded University of Kansas 71-61 in yesterday’s Southwest Regional final. The 11th-seeded Rams tied a record as the lowest-ranked team to reach the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament semifinals, where they’re joined by the University of Kentucky, University of Connecticut and Butler.

It’s the third time since the NCAA tournament began seeding schools in 1979 that no regional No. 1 teams made the Final Four. This is the first time in 33 years no school seeded second or better is in the national semifinals.

“What it says about college basketball is any very good team from any league can go to the Final Four,” said the 33- year-old Smart, who’s in his second year as coach at Richmond, Virginia-based Virginia Commonwealth. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, the playing field has evened out a little bit. When you have a senior-laden team like we do, you have an opportunity to go make a run like this.”

The odds were against it. Virginia Commonwealth was rated a 350-1 chance of winning the championship at the start of the tournament, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, 42nd among the 68 teams in the field. The Rams’ chances of winning their first five games -- all as underdogs -- were 1,371-1, according to Pregame.com.

‘Phenomenal’

That doesn’t faze Smart, whose team is a 2 1/2-point underdog for its April 2 semifinal in Houston against Butler, which won the Southeast Regional as an eighth seed.

“Our guys have done a phenomenal job of putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside,” said Smart, who played point guard at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, from 1995-99 and remains the school’s career leader in assists.

Smart and Butler coach Brad Stevens, 34, who has Indianapolis-based Butler back in the Final Four for the second straight year, together are one year younger than Jim Calhoun, in his 25th season as Connecticut’s coach.

While VCU and Butler are both seeking their first national title, Kentucky and UConn have nine between them. Kentucky’s seven championships are second only to UCLA and the Wildcats’ 107 NCAA tournament victories are the most all-time.

Championship Odds

Kentucky is favored by 1 1/2 points in their semifinal matchup and has the best championship odds of the Final Four teams at 7-5, according to the Las Vegas Hilton’s Race and Sports Book. Connecticut is second at 9-4, followed by Butler at 3-1 and Virginia Commonwealth at 9-2.

While his team is now the favorite, Wildcats coach John Calipari said he’s “a little bit surprised” to have Kentucky back in the Final Four for the first time since its 1998 championship. Kentucky was seeded fourth in the East, behind Ohio State, North Carolina and Syracuse.

“I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off,” Calipari said after the Wildcats beat North Carolina 76-69 in the East Regional final yesterday in Newark, New Jersey.

Kentucky (29-8) has won 10 straight games behind the improving play of freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, its top three scorers.

Huskies’ Streak

Connecticut (30-8), which won the West as a third seed, is led by national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker. The Huskies have won nine in a row, a streak that started with five victories in five days at the Big East tournament.

Butler (27-9) has won 13 straight games and will become the first school from outside one of the major conferences to play in two straight Final Fours since the University of Las Vegas- Nevada in 1990-91. The Bulldogs, from the Horizon Conference, lost to Duke University 61-59 in last year’s championship game.

VCU (28-11) has had the most unlikely run of all the Final Four teams. The Rams slipped into the NCAA tournament field as one of the last at-large selections and had to beat Southern California in one of the expanded tournament’s First Four games. VCU followed with wins over Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State before upsetting top-seeded Kansas (35-3) as a 12-point underdog.

“Let the chips fall where they may,” Smart said. “That’s what we did. We made history here, winning five games, going to the Final Four. And we’re not done yet.”

To contact the reporter responsible for this story: Erik Matuszewski in Newark, New Jersey at matuszewski@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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