When the brackets were released on Selection Sunday, only one word seemed to be on the lips of college basketball experts: parity. There was no clear-cut favorite, no 2007 Florida or 2009 North Carolina team waiting to vanquish all comers.
While the prevailing opinion was that it was the Kansas Jayhawks' tournament to lose, there was very little separation between Kansas and the rest of the field, and cases could be made for multiple teams to cut down the nets at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium , the site of the Final Four.
Well, 60 NCAA tournament games later, we have our Final Four, and just to illustrate that this tournament could arguably be the wildest ever, only 200 out of the nearly 5 million brackets submitted to ESPN's Tournament Challenge had Michigan State, Butler, West Virginia, and Duke . After at least two No. 1 seeds had made the Final Four between 2007 and 2009 (highlighted by all four top seeds advancing to the Final Four in 2008), the Blue Devils were the only top-seeded team to advance to Indianapolis.
What happened to the other No. 1 seeds along the way to Lucas Oil Stadium? The tournament's top overall seed, Kansas, was "Farokmaneshed." The second overall seed, Kentucky , suffered from an awful shooting night (4-of-32 on three-pointers) against the tough 1-3-1 and zone defenses of West Virginia . The fourth overall seed, Syracuse , played a sloppy game and was defeated by upstart Butler .
Overall, it was not a good year to be a top-four seed. Second-seeded Villanova , which many felt should not have been a No. 2 seed based on their late-season fade (losing five out of seven games), fell to 10th-seeded St. Mary's . Third-seeded Georgetown , which had erased a late-season slump and fell in the Big East tournament final with four seconds to play, was eviscerated by No. 14 seed Ohio , the ninth-place school in the MAC (Mid-American Conference).
Another No. 3 seed, New Mexico , was blown out by No. 11 seed Washington , the champions of a weak Pac-10, in the second round, while a third No. 3 seed, Pittsburgh , failed to make it out of the second round, losing to sixth-seeded Xavier . Finally, fourth-seeded Vanderbilt lost on a buzzer-beater to No. 13 seed Murray State .
When all was said and done, only two No. 1 seeds, two No. 2 seeds, one No. 3 seed, and no No. 4 seeds reached the Elite Eight. The "left half" of the bracket saw the most carnage, as the Elite Eight matchups consisted of fifth-seeded Michigan State playing sixth-seeded Tennessee in the Midwest, and fifth-seeded Butler taking on second-seeded Kansas State in the West.
With all of that bracket upheaval in the rearview mirror, it is now time to take a look at each Final Four team.
Midwest Regional Champions: Michigan State (28-8)
F Raymar Morgan , F Delvon Roe , C Derrick Nix , G Durrell Summers , G Korie Lucious
Key Bench Players:
G Chris Allen , F Draymond Green , G Austin Thornton
Story of their Season: Ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls after bringing back nearly every major contributor from the team that advanced to the National Championship game, the Spartans took some lumps in the non-conference portion of their schedule. They defeated Gonzaga , but fell to Florida in Atlantic City, N.J., at North Carolina , and at Texas .
The Spartans caught fire once Big Ten play started, reeling off nine straight wins to open their conference slate before losing point guard Kalin Lucas to an injury during a loss at Wisconsin . Losses at Illinois and home to Purdue followed as Michigan State struggled without Lucas. The Spartans regained their poise and finished 14-4 in Big Ten play, losing only once more, at home against Ohio State . In the Big Ten tournament, they lost to Minnesota in the quarterfinals.
Story of their Tournament: The Spartans are making life extremely tough on their fans, winning their first four games by a combined total of 13 points. Excluding their seven-point victory over Northern Iowa , they have won three games by a total of six points, and those three games came down to the final possession.
They began their tournament run in Spokane by defeating WAC (Western Athletic Conference) champion and No. 12 seed New Mexico State , 70-67. Up next was a thriller against fourth-seeded Maryland , as Korie Lucious sank the game-winning three-pointer to give Michigan State a dramatic 85-83 victory. However, in that game, the Spartans lost Lucas to a torn Achilles tendon, ending his season.
From there, it was on to St. Louis for the regional semifinals, where first up for them was Northern Iowa. A back-and-forth game throughout, Michigan State made enough plays down the stretch to pull out the 59-52 victory and advance to the regional final against Tennessee . An extremely well-played game from the opening tip to the final buzzer saw the Spartans prevail when Raymar Morgan hit the game-winning free throw with 1.8 seconds left, giving Michigan State the 70-69 win.
West Regional Champions: Butler (32-4)
F Matt Howard , F Willie Veasley , G-F Gordon Hayward , G Shelvin Mack , G Ronald Nored
Key Bench Players:
G Zach Hahn , F Avery Jukes , G Shawn Vanzant
Story of their Season: Much like their Final Four opponents in Michigan State, the Bulldogs took some licks early before toughening up and going on a sustained run of excellence, albeit Butler's run was more consistent than that of the Spartans. And, much like Michigan State, the Bulldogs played a tough non-conference schedule, playing in the 76 Classic in Anaheim during late November, as well as games against Georgetown, Ohio State, Xavier, and UAB .
Butler lost two games in the 76 Classic: their opening-round game to Minnesota and the fifth-place game against Clemson . They lost to Georgetown at Madison Square Garden in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, and also lost at UAB.
As for their quality non-conference victories, they beat Ohio State at home, but that win came with somewhat of an asterisk, as the Buckeyes were playing without Evan Turner , who was recovering from the broken back he suffered on Saturday, Dec. 5.
They also beat Xavier 69-68, winning on Gordon Hayward's layup with 1.8 seconds left. In a bizarre twist, the game clock had stopped for 1.3 seconds during that possession, and after the error was realized, the game was stopped for five minutes as the officials used a stopwatch to calculate how much time had really expired. It was ruled that Hayward's basket would have came with 0.5 seconds left, so the basket stood.
Following their challenging non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs moved into conference play, and rolled over the overmatched competition, completing a perfect 18-0 league season and then winning two more games to take home the Horizon League tournament title.
Story of their Tournament: Overpowering a weak, non-BCS conference like the Horizon League did not impress many observers, who instead chose to emphasize the Bulldogs' losses to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown, and UAB as reasons that they were going to be a quick out in the NCAA tournament. Many experts felt that No. 12 seed UTEP , with a strong inside game anchored by Derrick Caracter and a dynamic guard in Randy Culpeper , would be too much for Butler to handle.
In that first-round game, played in San Jose, the Bulldogs started out slow, trailing by six points at halftime. However, they turned up the intensity in the second half and routed the Miners, 77-59. Up next was No. 13 Murray State , who had defeated fourth-seeded Vanderbilt at the buzzer two days earlier. Butler refused to be the Racers' second upset victim, as Hayward made a key defensive play at midcourt with time winding down to secure a 54-52 victory.
After playing the first two rounds in San Jose, the Bulldogs stayed out west, this time flying to Salt Lake City for the West Regional semifinals. They would be matched up with top-seeded Syracuse , and even though the Orange were playing without forward Arinze Onuaku , few gave Butler any chance to defeat Syracuse. However, the Bulldogs came out sharp, forcing turnover after turnover and taking a 10-point halftime lead. Butler remained confident in the face of adversity, absorbing a Syracuse run and rallying from a five-point deficit with under five minutes to play to stun the Orange, 63-59.
For the Bulldogs, it was uncharted territory: They were in their first Elite Eight in their school's history, and competing for the right to play in the Final Four just five miles from their college campus, squared off against the second-seeded Kansas State Wildcats .
The Wildcats were coming off a tumultuous double-overtime victory against Xavier in the regional semifinals, and that, combined with playing 50 minutes at over 4,000 feet above sea level not even 48 hours before the regional final, definitely took something out of them.
Kansas State appeared sluggish throughout the game, and suffered a terrible shooting performance. They hung in, however, and took the lead late in the game. Butler would not be denied, and once again rallied from the deficit, made the plays down the stretch, and advanced on to the Final Four.
East Regional Champions: West Virginia (31-6)
F Wellington Smith , F Devin Ebanks , F Da'Sean Butler , G Joe Mazzulla , F Kevin Jones
Key Bench Players:
F John Flowers , F Deniz Kilicli , G Casey Mitchell , F Cam Thoroughman
Story of their Season: The Mountaineers were picked by many experts to finish in the top of the Big East standings, and they did nothing to change people's minds to begin the season, starting 11-0. That fast start was highlighted by a victory in the 76 Classic, as West Virginia defeated Long Beach State, Texas A&M, and Portland to take the title. They began Big East play 2-0 before taking on Purdue on New Year's Day in the Battle of the Undefeateds, as the Boilermakers were 12-0 at the time of the game. Purdue thumped West Virginia, 77-62, saddling the Mountaineers with their first loss.
West Virginia would go on to encounter a little bit of turbulence early on in Big East play, dropping games on the road to Notre Dame and home to Syracuse . After a six-game winning streak following the loss to the Orange, the Mountaineers dropped back-to-back games, at home against Villanova and at Pittsburgh . After dropping one final game, at Connecticut , West Virginia finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, taking a 13-5 conference record and a No. 3 seed into the Big East Tournament.
In the Big East Tournament, forward Da'Sean Butler shined. He banked in a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Cincinnati , and after surviving a 53-51 victory against a much-improved Notre Dame team, defeated Georgetown on a Butler runner in the lane with four seconds to play. Despite the Big East tournament victory and Syracuse losing in its first tournament game, the Mountaineers couldn't leapfrog the Orange to get the fourth and final No. 1 seed.
Story of their Tournament: The Mountaineers rolled into the tournament on a six-game winning streak, and continued to do so early on, routing Morgan State in the first round, 77-50. In the second round, West Virginia met 10th-seeded Missouri , with their "40 Minutes of Hell" pressure defense. It was a struggle, but the Mountaineers prevailed, 68-59, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Syracuse.
At the Carrier Dome for the East Regional Semifinals, West Virginia squared off against Pac-10 champion and No. 11 seed Washington , and after a sloppy start, gradually pulled away to record a 69-56 victory.
Next up was the tournament's second overall seed, top-seeded Kentucky . Somehow, the Mountaineers held a two-point lead at the break despite not making a single two-point shot, as they made eight threes in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats continued to bomb away from deep, but missed an absolutely astounding 28 three-pointers en route to a 4-for-32 performance from beyond the arc. Coupled with a 16-for-29 performance from the free-throw line and 16 turnovers, it was not surprising at all that West Virginia had enough to hold off Kentucky, moving on to the Final Four for the first time since 1959, when future Hall of Famer Jerry West starred for the Mountaineers.
South Regional Champions: Duke (33-5)
F Lance Thomas , F Kyle Singler , C Brian Zoubek , G Jon Scheyer , G Nolan Smith
Key Bench Players:
G Andre Dawkins , F Mason Plumlee , F Miles Plumlee
Story of their Season: The Blue Devils played a high-visibility non-conference schedule, in the sense that they played numerous opponents from BCS conferences. They were featured in ESPN's 24-hour college basketball marathon to start the season, defeating Charlotte at home as a part of the Preseason NIT. In that tournament, Duke also defeated Arizona State and Connecticut at Madison Square Garden en route to the championship.
They also defeated St. John's at home and Iowa State in Chicago, and thrashed Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden in mid-December. Their lone black mark out of conference came at Wisconsin , which enabled the Big 10 to finally win the ACC-Big 10 Challenge.
The Blue Devils got off to a relatively rocky start to their conference schedule, dropping games at Georgia Tech and North Carolina State and starting 3-2. In the middle of their ACC schedule, they ventured north to Washington, D.C. and were hammered by Georgetown , 89-77. The loss to the Hoyas dropped Duke to 1-4 in true road games, and the many Duke detractors seized on that statistic as proof that the Blue Devils were nothing outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But Duke turned it around, finishing their ACC schedule 13-3, highlighted by a sweep of hated arch-rival and defending champion North Carolina as well as home victories over Georgia Tech and Maryland . The Blue Devils' lone loss after the Georgetown loss came at Maryland on March 3. In the ACC Tournament, Duke dispatched Virginia, Miami, and Georgia Tech to claim the tournament crown.
Story of their Tournament: Duke claimed the third overall No. 1 seed, which many experts felt should have belonged to Syracuse . Not only that, but the Blue Devils were playing in a region with a badly slumping No. 2 seed in Villanova and a No. 4 seed in Purdue that had looked like a No. 1 seed three weeks prior to Selection Sunday, but that was before Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in a victory at Minnesota , costing him his season and the Boilermakers a higher seed.
Duke began their tournament run in Jacksonville by rolling over the winner of the play-in game, Arkansas Pine Bluff , 73-44. They then coasted past Pac-10 regular-season champion and conference tournament finalist California , 68-53. The Blue Devils broke little sweat in turning back the Golden Lions and Golden Bears, but as they moved to Houston for the regional semifinals and final, the road would get a little tougher.
Duke met hobbled Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen, but despite struggling to score, the Boilermakers kept it close at the half, relying on physical toughness and the play of forward JaJuan Johnson to keep things close.
A softer Blue Devils team may have folded, but this year, Duke appears to have shed the "softie" label and aren't afraid to get down and dirty for the rebounds. A huge reason for that turnaround has been the increased level of play from center Brian Zoubek , who moved into the starting lineup and has proved quite adept at grabbing rebounds.
The Blue Devils came out in the second half and put the pedal to the medal, and the valiant yet undermanned effort from Purdue would not be enough, as Duke prevailed, 70-57. Just one win away from their first Final Four since 2004, the Blue Devils now had to face third-seeded Baylor in Houston, just 3.5 hours away from Waco, where the Bears' campus is located.
Baylor's athleticism was tough for Duke to handle at first, and the Bears opened up a six-point lead late in the first half en route to a three-point halftime lead. However, in the second half, the Blue Devils turned more aggressive, getting to the free-throw line repeatedly and grabbing scores of offensive rebounds—22 in total against a very tall and athletic Baylor front line. Two such offensive rebounds led to back-breaking threes by Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer , propelling Duke into the Final Four with a 78-71 victory.