If you're like me, when it comes to basketball, numbers aren't necessarily king, but they're darn close. Consider this year's Final Four our nirvana.
The potential starting points are many, but 32 is as good of a jumping off point as any. As in 32 years since two programs outside of the power conferences have reached the national semifinals. The year was 1979, Larry Bird led a Cinderella Indiana State team to the brink of a national championship against Magic Johnson's Michigan State. Penn was the other party crasher that year. Six years later the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams and Villanova shocked the world by winning it all as an eight-seed, the lowest seed to ever accomplish that feat. Regardless of which team emerges from Butler and VCU's match-up on Saturday night, that record will at least be threatened by a tie.
Then there's 35 - the age requirement to run for the office of the President of the United States. Neither Butler's Brad Stevens (34) nor the Rams Shaka Smart (33) can legally lead the free world, but they've managed to lead their teams to the final weekend of the college basketball season. There won't be two hotter names in the coaching community this summer, though Stevens has certainly shown no desire to leave his throne atop Hinkle Fieldhouse, Smart on the other hand certainly seems as though he would at least entertain some offers.
But the most important number perhaps is simply zero. Since seeding of tournament teams began in 1979 there has never been a Final Four devoid of a team seeded No. 1 or No. 2. If that doesn't accurately sum up this year's March Madness, then maybe the sum of all four seeds does: a record-breaking 26.
We have a full week of preview and analysis to look forward to here at Mid-Major Madness, so let's kick it off with another edition of Mashups, with reaction from around the sports world.
John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times: "Once upon a time, the Final Four welcomed a true Cinderella. It is not unheard of for a mid major or a low seed to crash the party at the Final Four, but it's extraordinary to see two of them in the same year and on the same side of the bracket. Butler, meet VCU. VCU, meet Butler. America, meet your fantasy. One way or another, an underdog is going to play for the national title a week from tonight. And it will be the first time since Villanova in 1985 that a team seeded No. 8 or worse will make it to the championship game. It could be Butler, which was supposed to take a step backward in the Horizon League in 2011. The Bulldogs were not as dominant as they were last season, when they reached the title game against Duke as a No. 5 seed. Or it could be VCU, which was supposed to take a step toward the NIT in 2011."
Michael Hiestand of USA Today: "While fans might love the idea of NCAA Cinderellas, the wicked power-conference stepsisters usually draw the big TV ratings. But then, as Dick Vitale suggested on ESPN before Sunday's North Carolina-Kentucky game, they have the right outfits: "I get goosebumps thinking about those jerseys and all the history and tradition." So Saturday is a test: Will the masses really flock to a VCU-Butler tango? Not surprisingly, the mid-major teams got the early time slot for the national semifinals, with a tip at 6:09 p.m. ET, as brand names Kentucky and Connecticut get the marquee later slot. "It's going to be fine," says Mike Aresco, CBS Sports executive vice president. "Butler is such a big story, and was such a big story last year in getting to the championship game. And the teams have two young coaches, and nobody remembers two coaches this young doing anything like this. And Butler has become a national darling, like Gonzaga 10 years ago." And since VCU had to play one of the four play-in, er, first-round games, Turner Sports President David Levy sees benefits for those games next year: "It certainly proves the First Four has more meaning. Maybe people now will start filling out brackets on Tuesday rather than Thursday."
Mike Wise of the Washington Post: "Their 155-pound point guard, dribbling madly around the basketball court, would need a phone book under his sneakers to clear 6 feet. Their center, who decided life at one of the nation's most esteemed programs was not for him, appears to be better at three-point shots than the ones he takes closer to the basket. Even their cocksure young leader who preaches controlled chaos - he turns 34 in two weeks - seems unorthodox, almost out of place among the giants of college basketball. The good thing is, pedigree and power conferences don't always dictate who gets a chance to play in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The good thing is, Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Coach Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth got in. And once that happened, the improbable followed in lockstep."
Pat Forde of ESPN.com: "When players from both teams shook hands before the game that broke the bracket once and for all, Kansas big man Marcus Morris went to the intimidation playbook once too often. "You guys have had a good run," he told Virginia Commonwealth guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell. "But now it's over." Morris and the Jayhawks had barked, shoved and bullied their way past Richmond here Friday night. Rodriguez warned Saturday that similar tactics in the regional final Sunday wouldn't work with the 11th-seeded Rams. "We're a different set of guys," Rodriguez said. Yeah, you could say that. A set of guys unlike any we've seen in NCAA tournament history. The fearless senior point guard, who is a foot shorter than the glowering, hulking Morris, didn't cower. He laughed at the 6-foot-9 Morris. And after shocking the world and shutting the Jayhawks' pie holes 71-61, he and the Rams are still laughing. All the way to Houston."
Michael Rosenberg of SI.com: "So when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth meet in the Final Four, what will they do? Compare slingshots? There has never been anything like what we will witness in Houston next weekend. Cinderella will look in the mirror and realize it's not a mirror; it's another Cinderella. The impossible just happened twice. Until the last week before the regular season, nobody knew if Butler and VCU would even make the tournament. Butler had to win its conference tournament to ensure a bid. VCU had to wait until the selection committee made ESPN analysts throw up. And now here they are. Duke is gone. Ohio State is gone. Every No. 1 and 2 seed is gone. And Butler and VCU are still standing, ready to meet in the Final Four. If eighth-seeded Butler makes the title game -- ladies and gentlemen, that is now the chalk pick -- the Bulldogs will play for the championship for the second straight year. Yes, just like the Patrick Ewing Georgetown teams, the Christian Laettner-Grant Hill-Bobby Hurley Duke teams, the Fab Five, and the James Worthy-Sam Perkins North Carolina teams. Butler."
Bob Molinaro of the Virginian-Pilot: "Not even a dreamer on the outskirts of suburban Bracketville who had Butler reaching the Final Four again could have pictured this: the Bulldogs entering Saturday's semifinal game as the overdog. Butler became the ostensible, if narrow favorite when Virginia Commonwealth turned up the insanity at the NCAA tournament by toppling Kansas on Sunday afternoon in San Antonio. Remember the Alamodome! How will any college basketball fan forget it? As for explaining how VCU has won five tournament games, four by double digits, I'll leave that to others - say the guys at ESPN, who VCU's Brandon Rozzell chided late Sunday afternoon when he looked into a TV camera and called out to Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas. VCU has earned the right to flex its ego, but what was the media supposed to do, cavalierly predict that VCU - the CAA's fourth-place team - would string together victories over teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12? By doing just that, and by dropping Kansas like a bad habit, Shaka Smart's band of 3-point-shooting, media-defying upstarts saw to it that not a single No. 1 seed reached the Final Four for only the third time since 1979."
Mike Huguenin of Yahoo Sports: "March Madness reigns! Welcome to the 2011 Final Four, where one of the national semifinals will match Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. What sounds more like a second-round game in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament instead will determine a participant in the national title contest. VCU, seeded 11th in the Southwest Region, continued knocking off major-conference opponents in impressive fashion Sunday, stunning Kansas 71-61 in the regional final in Tulsa, Okla., to advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history. The Rams will meet Butler, which advanced to the Final Four by winning the Southeast Region on Saturday. The other national semifinal matches two of the sport's premier programs in Connecticut, which won the West Region on Saturday, and Kentucky, which prevailed in the East Region on Sunday."
Pete Thamel of the New York Times: "Butler Coach Brad Stevens has a librarian's calm, his in-game demeanor doubling as the consummate poker face. Virginia Commonwealth Coach Shaka Smart bounces along the sideline as if it were a trampoline, hopping around and calling out plays as if he had hot coals in his loafers. When No. 8-seeded Butler plays No. 11 V.C.U. in the Final Four on Saturday, they will be the two lowest seeds to face each other in the national semifinals in N.C.A.A. tournament history. The 33-year-old Smart and the 34-year-old Stevens have defied the sport's conventional wisdom, turning the typical wine-and-cheese Final Four into a keg party - everyone is invited. It was nearly impossible to predict this. Only two people out of the 5.9 million who filled out brackets on ESPN.com picked the correct Final Four. Overshadowing established programs like Kentucky and Connecticut, which will make up the other half of the Final Four, is hard. But by taking up half the spots in what is typically a party for teams from the six power conferences, Butler and V.C.U. have left the sport with two questions: How did the college basketball landscape shift to allow this to happen? And will two midmajor teams advancing to the Final Four alter how the N.C.A.A. tournament selection committee perceives such programs? "I think years ago, everyone thought there was a big difference between the best teams in the high-major leagues and the best teams in the midmajor leagues," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said in a phone interview Sunday night. "That is really no longer true."