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The Final Four presents a conundrum that challenges one of sport fandom's fundamental principles: when one's team is absent, pull for the underdog.
Butler, inches away from completing the biggest upset since USA 4, USSR 3 against Duke in the 2010 National Championship, returns to take care of some unfinished business. However, rather than opposing their usual big conference Goliath, the Bulldogs will face a fellow mid-major in the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth.
Universally berated for their at-large berth, VCU had to participate in a "First Four" play-in game to reach the field of 64. Yet coach Shaka Smart hasn't let critics waver his team's demeanor, using the condemnation to fuel VCU's fire. Employing a "havoc" defense that correlates to turnovers while converting from behind the arc, the Rams have disposed of perennial powerhouses such as Kansas, Georgetown and Purdue in their trek towards Houston.
Butler can sympathize with the Rams' plight, as the Bulldogs balanced on the bubble until upending the Milwaukee Panthers in the Horizon League Championship. With star Gordon Hayward taking residence in the NBA, many thought Butler would have their hands full with first round adversary Old Dominion. But after defeating No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, followed by take-downs of Wisconsin and Florida, Brad Stevens' squad has the state of Indiana hoping for a Hoosiers-esqe ending.
Alas, one storybook season will have to end, and according to the WhatIfSports' prediction engine, VCU emerges victorious over Butler by an average score of 72-69.
On the other side of the bracket lie two schools familiar with these surroundings. UConn and Kentucky are synonyms with college hardwood excellence, as the universities have combined for nine national titles. Yet while the name on the front of the jersey may carry some historical clout, the Wildcats and Huskies were far from Final Four favorites in early March.
With the departure of heralded freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Beldsoe, Kentucky was expected to have somewhat of a "down" season compared to the program's lofty standards. And as of late February, their record reflected this sentiment as the Wildcats sported a 7-6 league mark. But ignited by their performance in the SEC tournament, John Calipari's boys in blue sit two games away from the school's first NCAA Championship banner since 1998.
Connecticut mirrored Kentucky's league woes, as the Huskies entered the Big East tournament as a No. 9 seed and faced a daunting five games in five days schedule. But spurred by the hot hand of Kemba Walker, UConn defeated the likes of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville to claim the conference crown. Impervious to any ensuing fatigue from that grueling gauntlet, Jim Calhoun's ensemble advanced through the West Regional, earning a trip to Houston thanks to a 65-63 barn-burner against Arizona in the Elite Eight.
However, Connecticut's run appears to be kaput, as the computers forecast the freshman trio of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to come out on top with a 68-66 victory for the Wildcats.
These predictions leave us with an almost unthinkable proposition of VCU and Kentucky in the championship game. The Wildcats appear too high of a hurdle to overcome for the Rams, with Kentucky expected to cut down the nets on Monday by an average score of 71-66.
But as Butler and VCU have illustrated these last two weeks, projections and favorites equate to squat in March. Regardless of the Rams-Bulldogs outcome, the winner automatically returns to their normal underdog status. And as both schools have proven, don't ever count out the little guy.
Joel Beall is the Assistant Content Manager for Whatifsports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.