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Bob Ryan

Squeezing juice from tourney

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 29, 2011

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The combined ages of the Butler and Virginia Commonwealth coaches who will face off in one semifinal game in Houston this coming Saturday is one year less than the time logged on this earth by Jim Calhoun.

As colleague Nick Cafardo would say, that’s apropos of nothing, but it’s a juicy little subplot, regardless.

But the schools coached by 34-year-old Brad Stevens of Butler and 33-year-old Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth speak to the offbeat nature of a riveting NCAA Tournament, and especially to a Final Four in which there will be neither a No. 1 seed, nor a No. 2, but which will feature, in addition to the aforementioned fuzzy-cheeked mentors, one coach who will start next season serving a three-game suspension for naughty recruiting shenanigans, and another who is the only person in the 62-year history of the tournament to take two schools to the Final Four and see each stripped of the accomplishment.

When you think about it, Connecticut with Calhoun, Kentucky with John Calipari, Butler with Stevens, and Virginia Commonwealth with Smart encompass just about the full spectrum of Division 1 basketball.

Kentucky is the ultimate basketball school, with the most devoted following of any basketball or football school. UConn has been a second-generation power under Calhoun, now deep into his third decade of success. Stevens and Butler represent the NCAA ideal. They play in an iconic fieldhouse, graduate everybody, have always won a representative share of their games, and now are going back to the Final Four for the second year in a row. Best of all, an NCAA investigator would have to consult a GPS. VCU is a gritty city school with the smart young coach that gives hope to one and all that, if you get in the tournament, all kinds of good things could happen.

For many reasons, therefore, it is a Final Four unlike any other.

Could there even be one person among the millions who fill out those ubiquitous office brackets who had envisioned a national semifinal game featuring eighth-seeded Butler against a Virginia Commonwealth team that had to play an extra game in order to enter the real tournament as an 11th seed? If so, it was undoubtedly the proverbial office secretary who bases her selections on team colors, nicknames, mascots, or alma maters of friends and family. Certainly no one who put any thought in this would have predicted a return trip to the Final Four for 2010 tournament darling Butler or, Lord knows, would anyone have projected into the Final Four a totally trashed Colonial Athletic Association fourth-place VCU team whose very presence in the tournament was denounced by experts from Bellingham to Bradenton as a downright travesty.

The other semifinal coaching matchup is fascinating on many levels. Calhoun, whose teams won it all in 1999 and 2004, is coming off the toughest season of his long coaching career, unless you count the ones (yes, that’s plural) in which he battled cancer. This season Calhoun lost a sister-in-law he loved like a sister, as well as his college roommate, a very close friend. He also found himself slapped down by the NCAA for improprieties stemming from the ill-fated recruitment of a troubled, and unneeded, player named Nate Miles.

But his team has given him great joy. Right now he’s content to let the hounds bay. He’s having too much fun to take offense.

His coaching rival Saturday will be Calipari, no stranger to off-the-court controversy, and, lest we forget, an old adversary of Calhoun’s. Back in the early ’90s, when Calhoun was establishing UConn as a paid-up member of the basketball establishment, Calipari and his feisty UMass teams were the yippy chihuahuas nipping at the heels of the haughty UConn Great Dane. They fought an epic recruiting battle for a skinny shot-blocking center from Hartford named Marcus Camby. Calipari won, and UMass roared to the 1996 Final Four with Camby as its star player. But Camby was caught accepting gifts and jewelry from an agent, and the UMass appearance was officially “vacated.’’

Was Calipari himself culpable? He says no. But three years ago his Memphis team, a national runner-up to Kansas, was similarly stripped of its Final Four status, this time because star guard Derrick Rose was accused of having someone else take his SATs. Again, Coach Cal pleaded innocence, ignorance, or whatever. But two Final Four “vacateds’’ in two tries is tough on the reputation.

Now, people can feel about Coach Cal however they wish. I’m here to say he is not the villain he is made out to be. At worst, he’s a charming rogue. But one thing they cannot say with any degree of accuracy is that he cannot coach. Oh, boy, can he coach. If he couldn’t, Kentucky would not have beaten No. 1 seed Ohio State and No. 2 seed North Carolina in order to reach his third Final Four with his third school.

Anyway, watch the pregame handshake between Coach Calhoun and Coach Cal. It might have a Belichick-Mangini feel.

Three of them got here the hard way. UConn played its way into a No. 3 seed by winning five games in five days at the Big East tournament. Four wins in the NCAAs later, they had won nine games in an impressive 19 days.

Kentucky needed game-winning baskets by freshman Brandon Knight to get by both Princeton and Ohio State. Butler has won its four games by 2, 1, 7 and 3 (in overtime) points.

Only VCU has dominated, and I must repeat, dominated. The Rams have won their five NCAA Tournament games by margins of 13 (USC), 18 (Georgetown), 18 (Purdue), 1 (Florida State, another unheralded team), and 10 (Kansas). What kind of bizarro basketball universe is this? I have no answer.

I just know it has been a spectacular NCAA Tournament. I also know that with Jim Calhoun and John Calipari there will be some juicy press conferences.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.