HOUSTON — The VCU players sat at home last year, watched Butler almost win the national championship and thought, sure, that could be us someday. Sort of the same way people dream about winning the lottery.
Well, the numbers came up for the Rams this year. Same thing for Kentucky, Connecticut and Butler again, too, in a way the NCAA tournament has never seen before.
The teams arrived at the Final Four on Thursday, all after a season of playing the underdog at one point or another — a season that produced a final weekend hardly anyone saw coming.
"Crisis mode," Wildcats coach John Calipari said in describing Kentucky's status after a loss to Arkansas dropped his team to 19-8, pedestrian by standards in the Bluegrass State.
"Our next games were home against Florida, home against Vanderbilt and at Tennessee. Shoot, we lose those and maybe we're not in the tournament."
They weren't the only ones with that empty feeling at some point in 2010-11.
Connecticut was picked 10th in the Big East.
VCU was listed as a preseason 5,000-1 longshot.
Butler was 14-9 and riding a three-game losing streak in early February.
"I never thought we'd be sitting here," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said when asked what he thought of his team's prospects at that point. "But the season starts in October and it goes until at least March 1. You're supposed to get better. It's hard. But if you have guys willing to work through it, it can happen."
In the first semifinal Saturday, eighth-seeded Butler (27-9) will play 11th-seeded VCU (23-11), in a matchup of underdog mid-majors that some might consider more fitting for the Maui Invitational than a Final Four bracket.
In the second game, it's No. 3 Connecticut (30-9) vs. No. 4 Kentucky (29-8) in the rematch of a game that really was played at the Maui Classic. UConn won 84-67 back on Nov. 24. A trip to Houston wasn't on anyone's mind back then.
"That game showed what we could be and certainly what John needed to fix," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said of Calipari. "It turned out, I needed to fix some things, too, but it was later because the problems showed up in the Big East."
By solving the problems, UConn has landed in probably the most inconceivable foursome in Final Four history — not a single No. 1 or 2 seed for the first time ever, and a group of teams chosen by a grand total of three people out of more than 8 million entrants in bracket contests run by ESPN and Yahoo.
"At first, it was the selection and how we shouldn't be in the tournament," VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "Then it became, we can't do this in this game, we won't be able to do that in that game. We keep proving people wrong, and now, we're here."
Led by 33-year-old coach Shaka Smart, the Rams went only 12-6 and finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association. They wound up as one of the last teams placed in the tournament bracket. They took immense flak from ESPN's Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and a whole group in the bracketology set who called VCU undeserving when its name showed up and teams such as Colorado and Virginia Tech were left out. The Rams answered by winning five games on their road to the Final Four by an average of 12 points.
Now, they're celebrities, across the nation and around their own campus — located in Richmond, Va., with enrollment of 32,000, about the same size as George Mason, the Virginia school that also made the Final Four as an 11 seed back in 2006.
"I went to the bookstore the day the Final Four T-shirts came out, and that was a mistake," VCU guard Bradford Burgess said. "People were taking pictures, giving me hugs, signing autographs. It took me an hour and a half to get out."
On the blue blood side of the bracket, UConn will face Kentucky in a matchup of pedigree teams who went through some dog days this season.
The Wildcats lost five players to the NBA draft after last season, including the No. 1 pick, John Wall.
Calipari figured out his team and got it revved up at precisely the right time. Led by freshman Brandon Knight (East region most outstanding player) and senior Josh Harrellson (14.8 points and nine rebounds a game in the tournament), the Wildcats returned to the Final Four for the first time since they last won it all, in 1998.
"This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me," Calipari said. "They became empowered, and that's when they became special. They know it now. They get it."
The Huskies are a young team led by junior Kemba Walker, a guard from the Bronx who has added a nice mid-range and 3-point-shooting game to his repertoire and has averaged 26 points a game since UConn went on a remarkable postseason run. The Huskies, who finished the Big East at 9-9, won five straight in the conference tournament and four more in the NCAA.
UConn is in the Final Four for the second time in three years. In 2009, it was expected. This time, it's a surprise. That places the Huskies in familiar company this week.
"My freshman year, everyone was like, 'You're going to make the Final Four,'" Walker said. "This time, I didn't know if we were going to make it. We were underdogs almost the whole year. To make it the way we made it, it's kind of special."