Adversity is part of life. Sports are no different, as no team ever goes through a season without adversity of some sort. Some teams and players go through more than others, but it’s all part of competing. This year’s Final Four teams are all studies in exactly that, because each has had to overcome adversity along the way.
VCU had more than its fair share of adversity, some of which wasn’t expected. This is a team picked third in the Colonial Athletic Association before the season, with some picking them second. The non-conference slate went reasonably well, but had some missed opportunities. It included blowing a lead at UAB right before Christmas, then a couple of wins right before CAA play that left head coach Shaka Smart concerned about leadership – not exactly what one would expect of a senior-laden team. Joey Rodriguez remembered going home after the UAB game, namely that it felt like an even longer drive (he drove from Birmingham to his home in Florida) because it was a missed opportunity.
Then there was the month of February, which has been well-documented. The Rams had a fine month of January and led the CAA when it was over, including a big win at arch-rival and preseason favorite Old Dominion. But after February, this was a team that appeared to need to win the CAA Tournament if they were to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The rest, as they say, is history. But the Rams didn’t get here unscathed.
“We went through some adversity this year as most teams did,” said Smart. “We weren’t 35-2 coming into this game, but we’re playing our best basketball when it matters most, and that’s why I’m sitting up here right now with a net around my neck.”
The same is true of Butler. The Bulldogs also looked like a team that needed to win their conference tournament to make it to the NCAA Tournament, thanks largely to a couple of missed opportunities in non-conference play and a three-game losing streak that ended with a loss at Youngstown State and had them at 6-5 in league play. That was also the last time they lost.
The Bulldogs’ seed in the tournament doesn’t suggest they needed to win the Horizon League, but they did to make that moot. They had a better non-conference slate than VCU with a couple of good wins, but also looked quite unimpressive at times and their start in the Horizon didn’t help.
“Getting to this point isn’t easy and staying together isn’t easy when everything is going wrong,” said junior Ronald Nored. “And that was the thing that I think has gotten us to this point.”
Connecticut got off to a roaring start as Kemba Walker carried them early. But in Big East play, the Huskies came back down to earth, especially at the end of the regular season as they lost four of five. About a month earlier, they lost three of four. They finished 9-9 in Big East play, good for ninth place, which set the stage for their legendary run through the Big East Tournament.
The supporting cast for Walker at times looked to be emerging, and at other times it didn’t. But it’s definitely here now, with Jeremy Lamb growing up tremendously during the season and Shabazz Napier emerging, while Alex Oriakhi continues to improve inside. And with that and Walker on a roll that is the stuff of legends, the Huskies are in Houston.
Then there is Kentucky. The Wildcats faced adversity right away as Enes Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA. Kanter was widely believed to be a possible difference-maker for this team, and without him they looked a little less formidable. But they never had him, so it’s not as if they had to adjust to life without Kanter.
That wasn’t all. Once SEC play got going, the Wildcats had a hard time winning away from Rupp Arena. Their only road wins came at struggling South Carolina and at Tennessee, the latter on the last day of the regular season as the feast-or-famine Volunteers were limping into the conference tournament. Since then, the young Wildcats have grown up, winning seven more in a row away from home.
Even in some of the games each team won, there was some adversity. The phrase that a season is a marathon and not a sprint may be a cliché, but it is true. The teams that play through it the best are often the ones left standing.
None of the four teams playing in Houston made it here unscathed. As is often the case, sports has imitated life when it comes to the 2011 Final Four.