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Mid-Major Morning Mashups: Appreciating VCU And Butler For What They Are

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A funny thing happened yesterday - I agreed with Colin Cowherd and found myself debating with Jay Bilas. 

Cowherd made a very simple argument: VCU is playing the best basketball of any Final Four team yet because of those three letters on the front of their jersey no one is willing to admit it. Put those same players in UNC uniforms argued the ESPN Radio Host and suddenly fans and pundits alike are lining up to crown them two games early. Bilas on the other hand argued that while we should give teams like the Rams and Butler credit for reaching the pinnacle of the college basketball universe, that it isn't so much a case of mid-major programs getting stronger, but a lapse in the power conference talent pool. In short Bilas is saying, "it's great that you got here and all guys, but if the big guys were up to par like they usually are, forget about it."

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bilas, I think he's one of, if not the best college basketball analyst out there. He's well spoken, knowledgeable and conveys that information in both an interesting and easily understood manner. But in this case, his level of power conference arrogance was a little too strong for my taste. Why does it have to be a down year for the big guys? Why does it have to be an overachieving aberration by the little guys? There is plenty of room for analysis and dissection without having to underscore what is a remarkable run by two teams? Butler to an ever greater degree than VCU should feel slighted. Making back-to-back Final Fours isn't luck and it isn't a result of a weak talent pool - plain and simple it is a pure manifestation of excellence. 

While the challenge of trying to fill print space and air-time for five days on one topic is a challenge - of this there is no question - the accomplishments of two great teams shouldn't have to be a casualty in another twisted case of the end justifying the means.

Jenny Dial of the Houston Chronicle: "The hottest ticket in town this weekend is undoubtedly one to the Final Four at Reliant Stadium. But with the field now set, that ticket isn't quite as hot as it was last week. According to one ticket-exchange site, the average price for a full-tournament ticket is down by $117 over last week. While Cinderella stories make good fairy tales, they don't necessarily make good business. A Final Four field of Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth - none of which was among the top two seeds when the Tournament field was released two weeks ago - is seen as the likely cause of the price drop. "A lot of the tickets purchased prior to the Tournament were probably fans of Kansas or Duke or other teams with these really high expectations," spokesperson Joellen Ferrer said. "Now it is a little more interesting, so we are seeing a lot of movement." While the average price ($631) is down from last week, it actually is up from last year, when the Final Four in Indianapolis hosted Butler, Michigan State, Duke and West Virginia. The average cost of a ticket for both days was $550."

Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune: "This time, the party crasher brought guests. The Final Four is an improbable quartet, evidenced statistically by it being the first time no No. 1 or No. 2 seeds are represented and the first time since 2006 that all four top seeds are absent. The stunning runs by No. 3 Connecticut, No. 4 Kentucky, No. 8 Butler and No. 11 VCU have transformed the Final Four from its usual red-carpet, black-tie event into a come-as-you-are house party. "People basically asked us why we were even showing up for the game because they had determined it was going to be Kansas that won the Southwest Region," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, who has the sideline energy of a wind-up toy. "Fortunately, our guys didn't agree with that sentiment." Few figured the tournament could shape up this way. Only two of the 5.9 million who filled out ESPN brackets picked correctly. How can anything make sense when Butler coach Brad Stevens, 34, isn't the baby of the group? Smart, 33, and Stevens' combined age doesn't even add up to Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun's 68 years."

Jack Styczynski of the New York Times: "In a January item about the expansion of the N.C.A.A. men's basketball tournament from 65 to 68 teams, I cited the recent Final Four appearances by George Mason and Butler as evidence that midmajor teams might have a case for some of the extra at-large bids. I went on to write that "underdogs make great stories and are very popular. It stands to reason, the more chances they get, the more they'll capitalize." Little did I know. Not only is Butler going to the Final Four for a second straight year, but Virginia Commonwealth took advantage of the tournament expansion to advance all the way from the First Four to the Final Four. (For those wondering if the Rams would have been the lone First Four team to make the tournament without the expansion, keep in mind that they wore dark jerseys in their game against U.S.C., a signal that they were considered the lower-seeded of the teams. That's perhaps not definitive evidence that they would not have made the field, but it's pretty close.) So long were V.C.U.'s odds to get an at-large bid that James Madison Coach Matt Brady had discounted such a possibility in the aforementioned January post, and the team itself didn't even gather to watch the bracket announcement on Selection Sunday."

Jason King of Yahoo Sports: "Jamie Skeen's decision to transfer from Wake Forest to Virginia Commonwealth three years ago wasn't exactly well received within his inner circle. "Friends, family, associates," Skeen said. "Everyone kept telling me it was a terrible decision." Now those same people are asking Skeen for tickets to the Final Four, which is where Skeen and the Rams are headed following Sunday's 71-61 upset of No. 1 seed Kansas at the Alamodome. With 26 points and 10 rebounds, Skeen was selected as the Most Outstanding Performer of the Southwest Regional. Pleased as he was to receive the accolade, Skeen was hardly parading the trophy around the Rams' postgame locker room. "I'm not satisfied," Skeen said. "We've still got two games left. People think that because we [beat Kansas], that we're going to settle for just making it to the Final Four. "I'm not settling at all. I'm not satisfied. I want to win two more games and win the whole thing. That's when y'all will see me smiling and jumping all over the place."

Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle: "Wichita State took a long time to make its contribution to the Missouri Valley Conference's legacy in the National Invitation Tournament. That legacy needed a modern update, which is what the Shockers can provide this week in New York. "Going to New York, in its own way, is huge," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "We have a very proud tradition and long history of success in the NIT. This is pretty sweet." WSU (27-8) plays Washington State (22-12) in Tuesday night's semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The Shockers are the first MVC team to make the NIT's final four since Bradley won it in 1982, the last of six titles claimed by a current or former Valley member. That is a long drought for a tournament that helped the MVC establish itself as a power. In the NIT's early days, the tournament raised the national profile of the conference and schools."

Lucas Clark of the Daily Emerald: "Dana Altman's return to Omaha didn't quite go according to plan Monday night as the Oregon men's basketball team fell 84-76 to the Creighton Bluejays in game one of the best-of-three championship series for the 2011 College Basketball Invitational. The Ducks (19-18) could not overcome a stellar shooting night on Creighton's part in front of 12,381 fans in attendance, and they will return to Eugene for the second game of the series on Wednesday night, which will be held at Matthew Knight Arena. For Altman's part, the return to the school he helped bring into the limelight of college basketball was expected to be awkward at the very least, but the first-year Oregon man didn't seem phased by the outside distractions. The numbers Altman posted during his 16-year tenure at the Bluejays helm speak for themselves (327 wins, nine Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles, seven NCAA tournament appearances, and two NCAA wins), but on Monday night it was current Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, and his son, Doug, who stole the show. Doug McDermott, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward, scored the first five points of the game for Creighton to help the Bluejays establish an early lead. Creighton went on to make six of its first seven three-point attempts, and shot 90 percent from the floor over the first nine minutes of action en route to a 44-point first half."