John Royal UConn's Jim Calhoun, the Don Corleone of the Final Four coaches.
But with the dark storm clouds hovering over UConn and Kentucky and with the attitudes and personalities of the coaches involved, the more apt comparison would probably be The Godfather, with Calhoun assuming the role of Don Corleone, Kentucky's John Calipari as the hot-tempered Sonny, Butler's Brad Stevens as Michael, the straight, smart kid trying to walk that fine line and stay out of the family business, and Shaka Smart as Fredo, the brother struggling for acceptance in the family.
Those storm clouds lingering over Reliant Stadium on Saturday were the result of the latest revelations regarding the UConn and Kentucky programs. Calhoun on Friday angrily declined to address the latest allegations arising from his ill-fated recruitment of Nate Miles -- Connecticut and Calhoun have already been sanctioned by the NCAA regarding Miles, but they may now be in the process of reopening the investigation. And Calipari grimaced when asked how he liked being at his first Final Four -- a dig at the fact that his two previous appearances, while coaching UMass and Memphis, have been wiped from the record books following recruiting violations.
And with UConn and Kentucky set to play each other on Saturday, the stage was set for the very strong possibility that a NCAA men's basketball title winner could ultimately be stripped of the title for cheating. But before the two master cheaters, the Don and his oldest son, could play each other yesterday, there was first the matter of two young kids, the mid-majors, Butler and VCU.
Reliant Stadium was semi-packed for the early game -- it'll probably be touted as a sellout, but there were lots of empty seats up top and down low (i.e., the nearly empty UConn student section) -- but 75 percent of those people were Kentucky fans waiting for the late game. It didn't help the energy of the building, or VCU's attempts to get into a rhythm and push the pace of the game, that just as things would really get going, CBS would go to one of their 10,000 commercial breaks. Butler took advantage of this, calling 30-second timeout after 30-second timeout knowing that CBS would turn it into a 20-minute break to allow for all of the promos of the 679 different versions of CSI and NCIS that CBS airs.
VCU put up the valiant effort in this battle of mid-majors, but Butler proved to be the better team, gaining the 70-62 win while moving on to their second straight NCAA title game tomorrow night. Butler pulled out the experience card, worked the tempo to their advantage and kept VCU from doing what they wanted to do.
"Tough game," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "Give Butler a lot of credit. I think for the majority of the game they were the more aggressive team, and that made the difference. That was probably the biggest difference between this game for us and our last five."
John Royal Butler's Brad Stevens, the Michael Corleone of the group.
"You tell me going into the game we out-rebound them by 16, turn it over one less time than them, I would have felt pretty good about the result," he said afterward, and that's what he got from his team, giving him the good result he wanted.
The atmosphere was much, much more electric as the big teams played each other and the Kentucky fans were given a chance to roar to life. Unfortunately, the actual game couldn't live up to the intensity of the Kentucky fans -- the UConn fans weren't much in evidence, especially the UConn student section, which was virtually empty. Kentucky had trouble making shots and trailed by 10 at the end of the first half. Kentucky came back to life to start the second half and made the game close, but their game-long inability to make an open shot doomed them to a 56-55 defeat.
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"As a coach, that's all you can ask of these young people. Give us a chance to win," John Calipari said of his squad after the game. "They gave us a chance. We had our opportunity."
John Royal John Calipari, the Sonny Corleone of the Final Four.
"I thought [Kentucky going] 1 for 10 down the stretch was the key to the basketball game," Jim Calhoun said afterwards. "We knew we were not going to make every shot, but if we can defend them, we can win this basketball game. Got the six-point lead, made a couple of mistakes. They made a big three. But our defense eventually won it for us, along with, what I said, the best player in America [Kemba Walker]."
So Butler and UConn return to Reliant Stadium tomorrow night. Don Corleone (Jim Calhoun) battling Michael Corleone (Brad Stevens). It's a battle matching a huge college basketball factory that is more than willing to bend a few rules here and there against the up-and-coming mid-major program out to prove that you don't need big bucks and questionable ethics to win a title.
The big question will be not just how empty Reliant Stadium is now that the Kentucky fans won't be around to pack the place, but whether this Final Four will go down in history as the one where the champion has been wiped off the record books due to recruiting violations. But if Butler gets the win, that might not end up being an issue.