Final Four Blog - is in Houston for the Final Four

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  Saturday, April 2 - 10:15 AM ET

Good morning fans.  Happy Semifinal Saturday!  I write this morning from the Crowne Plaza hotel in Reliant Park - about a half mile down Kirby Street from Reliant Stadium.  In about 7 hours, Butler and VCU will kick things off, and UConn vs. Kentucky will follow.

We all had a great time last night in downtown Houston, where much of the festivities for the weekend are being held - about 10 miles away from the stadium.  Many of the BIG EAST people here took in various functions - the two biggest ones being hosted by ESPN and the conference's marketing partner IMG Sports. 

The scene downtown last night was a lot of fun.  Lines seemingly out every establishment (again, thanks for the weather, Houston!) - most of the people wearing the colors of their favorite college hoops team. 

We are off to a couple of meetings during the day before heading over to the stadium.  I'll leave you with a link to highlights from the first UConn/Kentucky game.  Let's hope the outcome is the same.  Go BIG EAST!

  Friday, April 1 - 10:00 PM ET


BigEastBlog had the opportunity two weeks ago to work at the new incarnation of what is officially called the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship.

This, of course, is the first year of the new, 68-team format for the NCAA's best-known event, and there will be plenty of time after Monday's national championship game to assess the pluses and minuses of the new structure.

BigEastBlog suggests that there will be a number of questions that come up. Like why is it that the Final Four consists of four teams, while the First Four - the trademarked name given to the opening-rounds in Dayton - has eight? Does it make sense to refer to the round of 64 as the second round of the tournament - as if 60 teams received first-round byes? And will we ever again see a team play in the First Four and the Final Four in the same season?

What should not be open for debate is the location of the First Four event. So long as the good people at the University of Dayton wish to host the First Four, it should absolutely be held there. BigEastBlog is not sure that there's another site that could sell more than 10,000 tickets in advance to each of the event's two days without any indication as to which teams would be in attendance. And that doesn't take into consideration the fact that Dayton's own men's basketball team was playing an NIT game opposite the First Four.

BigEastBlog admits that he knew very little about the eight teams that headed to Dayton this year, so he went into the two days with an open mind. He knew that Arkansas-Little Rock's best player was Solomon Bozeman, who had a cup of coffee at USF a few years ago. And he knew that there was plenty of debate about the validity of the four at-large teams that were sent to Dayton -and whether or not some combination of Virginia Tech, Colorado, Harvard or Boston College shouldn't have been there in place of some, or all of them. But mainly, BigEastBlog's interest focused on the fact that three of the four games would feed BIG EAST opponents for the first, oops, second round of the tournament.

After watching the four games, BigEastBlog was convinced that there was, in fact, one team in Dayton that clearly belonged in the tournament and would be capable of a long run.



BigEastBlog has to admit that he watched every minute of VCU's 59-46 win against USC in Dayton from courtside, about three seats from the VCU bench. And while he was impressed with the Rams' style of play, he wasn't convinced that they'd be able to get past Georgetown two days later, let alone win that game and the following three to reach the Final Four for the first time.

It's an incredible story - a team that many pundits felt shouldn't have been included in the tournament now stands two wins away from the national title. Many of those same pundits have turned out to be quite conciliatory in their recent affirmations of VCU. After all, you can't help but notice that the Rams have played exactly one close game in the tournament in dispatching opponents from the Pac-10, BIG EAST, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12. Of course, BigEastBlog still contends that VCU's selection to the tournament was somewhat dubious - he finds maybe three good wins on their regular-season schedule - but that doesn't diminish their accomplishment in the least.

As good as the VCU story is, it might be the second-best story of the Final Four. BigEastBlog is of the belief that if Gordon Hayward's halfcourt shot against Duke in last year's title game had fallen, it would have been arguably the greatest story in sports history. Just think for a minute if Butler - a team from the Horizon League whose coach you had never heard of at this time last year - won the NCAA title by defeating Duke - with a pedigree second to none - on a halfcourt buzzer-beater in a game played within walking distance from the Bulldogs' campus.  Could anything in any sport top that?

So the fact that VCU has reached the Final Four might only be rivaled this year by the fact that Butler has made it again. Meanwhile, the other semifinal has no shortage of drama either. We all know Connecticut's story, but the fact that the BIG EAST's ninth-place team has a shot at a national title should speak volumes about the conference. And Kentucky, armed with a roster that bears little resemblance to last year's team, has a head coach who joins Rick Pitino as the only men to take three different schools to the Final Four.


What BigEastBlog didn't know those two days in Dayton, was that the road to this year's Final Four was among the most interesting treks in the event's history. And somehow he thinks that the best is yet to come.

Enjoy the games.

  Friday, April 1 - 5:45 PM ET

Greetings BIG EAST hoops fans.  I write to you following a great "Final Four Friday" here in Houston.  For those of us who traveled from the northeast, we are especially grateful to be on the Gulf Coast - experiencing balmy 80-degree weather while our friends and family back home endure mother nature's April Fool's joke:  a dreaded winter storm.
Fortunately, we are here in Houston, where the weather is nice - unfortunately, though, our afternoon was spent indoors.  There was no shortage of entertainment for the fans who came out to see the Final Four teams participate in open practice.  So far, the story of the open practice happens to be VCU head coach Shaka Smart, who was spotted diving for a loose ball and stepping in to take a charge at practice.  No, they're not from the BIG EAST, but we're not afraid to give them some love -- the VCU Rams certainly do seem to embody their head coach in the way they've made their run to Houston. 

As far as UConn's practice is concerned - it was very much business as usual.  Layup drills, free throw shooting, rebound drills.  The team seemed loose.  Kemba Walker, who experienced his first Final Four in Detroit two years prior, said in his press conference that not much has changed in his approach.  He wanted to soak it all in then and said he and his teammates are doing the same now.  

The best line of the press conference came when NY Post writer Lenn Robbins told Jim Calhoun that "the red stuff is Manhattan clam chowder.  It's pretty good.  You should try it some time."

Calhoun's response:  "Yeah, if you're a Yankee fan.  Us Bostonians and Red Sox fans feel differently about that."
  Friday, April 1 - 3:28 PM ET
Greetings from the great city of Houston, Texas!  Ben Fairclough here from the BIG EAST Conference office.  I will be updating all of you throughout the course of UConn's journey throughout Final Four weekend -- which we hope will conclude with a net cutting ceremony at the conclusion of Monday night's national title game.  

We will be providing an up close look at what it's like to be at "Final Four Friday" from Reliant Stadium, where UConn players and coaches will have an open practice at 4:10 p.m. ET.  Stay tuned for live updates on Twitter and keep tuning in to our Final Four blog for periodic first-hand accounts of what it's like to be at the Final Four.  Go Huskies!

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