Experiencing Saturday at the 2011 Final Four

Jamey Codding of Bullz-Eye.com got the opportunity to attend the Final Four thanks to Infiniti! Read about his experience below.

When complete strangers start chucking mini foam basketballs at you on your way down an airport escalator, you know Final Four fever has settled in. Houston was buzzing already, and we were still more than 24 hours away from the tipoff of the Butler/VCU game. Fans were moving through the George Bush Intercontinental Airport with their team affiliations proudly displayed on jerseys, t-shirts, hats, luggage and, of course, directly on their bodies with temporary tattoos and skin paint. Houston was ready to party. And so were we.

After getting settled at the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Houston, we met with our trusty Infiniti rep for the weekend, Ray Daniels, and headed to Cabo for a quick bite to eat and a couple of cervezas. Great way to start a great weekend. A few hours later, we found ourselves at the Sambuca Jazz Cafe for some dinner — the lobster enchiladas come very highly recommended — and stuck around after the meal for a few more drinks and some great live music. If you ever are in Houston looking for a place to spend an evening out, Sambuca should be on your short list.

Of course, Saturday was game day, and after grabbing a quick burger, we hopped onto the shuttle bus and headed over to Reliant Stadium (home of the NFL’s Houston Texans) to check out Infiniti’s Tip-Off Tailgate event, with all sorts of games, activities and, of course, food and drinks. We milled around the tailgate section for an hour or so, our celebrity radar already on high alert since we could safely assume that some big names would be in attendance to take in college basketball’s biggest weekend. Sure enough, just before we made our way to the gate, we saw former NFL defensive lineman Warren Sapp hanging with a group of people in a tucked away corner of the event, but we wisely resisted the temptation to snap a quick picture. We’ve made a point of not irritating 300-pound former NFL players, and it’s worked well for us so far so why deviate now?

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Don’t expect a high-scoring Final Four

With Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse out of the picture, some are grumbling about the lack of big-name teams at the Final Four. By the time the final buzzer sounds on Monday night, it’s entirely possible that those same detractors will call the games “boring” or “ugly.”

Here’s why:

1. Pace
There are 347 teams in the D1 ranks and of the four teams set to play Saturday, Michigan State (#215) plays at the fastest pace. The other three teams — Duke (#232), Butler (#285) and West Virginia (#306) — are all in the bottom third in the number of possessions used per game. All four teams are in the top 50 in offensive efficiency (points per possession), so there should be some scoring, but don’t expect any high-octane, up-and-down affairs.

2. Defense
Duke (#3 in defensive efficiency), Butler (#6) and West Virginia (#10) are elite defensive teams, and Michigan State (#33) isn’t bad, either. All four teams hold their opponents to less than 41.5% from the field and 33.1% from long range. Duke and Butler play great positional defense and always seem to have a help defender in the right spot. Michigan State and West Virginia use superior athleticism to smother opponents. The Mountaineers will even utilize a tough-to-attack 1-3-1 zone.

These teams are evenly matched and low-pace, low-scoring affairs lend themselves to close games. This should result in exciting basketball, but we’re not going to see anything like 2009, when all four teams were in the top 130 in overall pace.

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Thursday Final Four Commentary

Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: I don’t need to watch spoiled, entitled basketball brats from Kentucky go on an ego spree by crazily firing 32 3-point shots, and making only four, in an Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. I’ll take Butler, which runs an offense and (gosh) makes the extra pass. I’m good with Butler’s best player, Gordon Hayward, who told the Indianapolis Star he’s worried about missing his math classes this week. “I’ve got a heavy class load,” Hayward said. “Some guys don’t have anything, but I wasn’t as lucky with scheduling.” Wait a minute: a real student, competing for the NCAA basketball championship? Who let Hayward and Butler in here? Butler clearly needs to hire John Calipari’s academic advisers. I’m fine with Kansas coach Bill Self sitting in the stands. Nothing personal; he’s a nice fellow. But his No. 1 seed Jayhawks lost heart as soon as Northern Iowa punched them in the mouth early on in their second-round game. I’ll take Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who dug in and willed the Spartans to the Final Four despite the loss of Kalin Lucas, their injured point guard and leading scorer. I’ll even take this version of Duke, which made it back to the Final Four with a lineup rotation that really doesn’t rate with coach Mike Krzyzewski’s previous Final Four teams. Duke’s recruiting has slumped a bit in recent years. Based on previous Duke standards, Coach K has done more with less. There isn’t a sure No. 1 NBA draft pick on this Duke roster.

Jim Riggio, Real Clear Sports: All of the transfers left Duke with just two guards in summer in senior Jon Scheyer and junior Nolan Smith. But through it all Krzyzewski has worked his magic thanks to the knowledge of his players’ academic backgrounds. Andre Dawkins, who committed to Duke as a high school junior and figured to be one of the top prep players in the nation this year, would have actually been playing his fifth year of high school basketball. After transferring high schools following his freshman year, he was allowed to reclassify as a freshman for basketball purposes in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So Krzyzewski spoke to Dawkins about coming to Durham early and with guaranteed playing time available. The youngster couldn’t say no. It sounded like all the problems were solved and Krzyzewski could relax. But then in early December, Dawkins’ mother and sister were planning to drive down to North Carolina to see him play, only to never make it. With his mother also in the car, Dawkins’ sister Lacey was killed on a highway in West Virginia. This forced Dawkins to take temporary leave from the team to grieve his loss.

Jeff Goodman, FoxSports.com: There’s Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will likely retire as the all-time winningest coach in D-1 history; Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who is making a remarkable sixth Final Four appearance in the past dozen years; and Bob Huggins, who will likely join Coach K and Izzo in the Hall of Fame soon after he calls it a career. Three larger-than-life figures who have roamed the sidelines for years. Three fiery, intimidating personalities who are often unable to control their emotions. Then there’s Stevens, the 33-year-old wunderkind who just never, ever seems to lose his cool. Except when, following the win over Kansas State that earned Butler a spot in the Final Four in the Bulldogs hometown this week, Stevens ran across the floor and exchanged chest-bumps with walk-on Emerson Kampen. Stevens had been doing it in the locker room following each of the first three NCAA tournament wins, but decided to show a side of him that few have seen.

Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press: Izzo had gone to Tulsa only for the money. It was 1986, he’d been making less than $5,000 a year at Michigan State as a part-time assistant, and Tulsa offered a job as recruiting coordinator, which paid, he recalls, around $35,000. A fortune! Jud Heathcote, his MSU mentor, told him it probably would be a good move, so Izzo packed a suitcase and a duffel bag and went to Oklahoma to work for an intense coach named J.D. Barnett. One of the first questions Barnett had asked him was, “Do you promise you’ll stay?” And Izzo intended to. He wore a shirt and tie every day, as Barnett demanded. He worked from 6:30 a.m. until midnight, six days a week. He touted the Golden Hurricane logo and told recruits Tulsa would be a great place for them to play basketball. But seven weeks after he’d arrived — just as Izzo was about to buy a house — Heathcote called. A position had opened at MSU. Did he want to come back? … “Oh, J.D. went off!” Izzo recalls, laughing. “He was screaming, ‘Turn your car in RIGHT NOW!’ I kept trying to say I was sorry. He wouldn’t hear it. He was so mad. He hung up on me. I don’t blame him.” Izzo went down the hall and found a young staffer named Ron. He asked for a ride back from the car dealership. “I can’t do that,” Ron said, glumly. “Why not?” Izzo said. “J.D. just called and told me not to do anything for you.”

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An open letter to the NCAA

Dear NCAA Men’s Tournament Selection Committee,

This weekend, the Final Four will be played at Ford Field in Detroit, and I want to thank you for another lackluster tournament. The aristocrats of college basketball trampled their opponents en route to the Motor City. Your selection process favors the haves (30 of the 34 at-large bids went to schools from the six largest conferences) and discriminates against the have-nots (four at-large bids to mid-major conferences).

An alarming trend has shown that the number of at-large mid-major schools has dwindled from the high water mark of 12 in 2004 to a low of four schools (Xavier, Dayton, Butler and Brigham Young) playing in this year’s tournament. You’re slowly taking away the madness of March. Please don’t BCS the most anticipated playoff format in all sport.

Your chairman, Mike Slive, proclaimed, “It’s all about who you play, where you play, and how you do,” when describing the criteria for selecting the 65-team field. He added that the committee looks at schools individually and not at their conference affiliation. I beg to differ, as a bailout package was handed to a couple of major conference schools (Arizona and Wisconsin) to salvage their seasons, while the mid-major schools were left standing at the altar.

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Cleveland State upsets #17 Butler, gobbles up an at-large bid

Tuesday brought some bad news for the bubble teams — 17th-ranked Butler lost in the Horizon League final, 57-54, and since Butler is getting in regardless, there is one fewer at-large bid to be had.

This makes things tougher for bubble teams like South Carolina, Penn State, Arizona, San Diego State, Creighton, Saint Mary’s, Florida and Miami — Joe Lunardi’s “Last Four In” and “First Four Out.”

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