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MailTribune.com
  • Final Four teams offer wealth of contrasts

  • To say Shaka Smart is one-tenth the coach that John Calipari is is simply inaccurate, at least when it comes to salary.
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  • To say Shaka Smart is one-tenth the coach that John Calipari is is simply inaccurate, at least when it comes to salary.
    Smart, Virginia Commonwealth's coach who reportedly earns $325,000 annually, isn't that close to $4 million Kentucky coach Cal.
    But in the frame of college basketball's final week, they're equals as coaches and programs, just as Butler is with Connecticut, the other teams still standing.
    The Final Four tips off Saturday in Houston, and rarely has the contrast in its teams' stature been this stark.
    In the opening semifinal, Butler takes on VCU. An eighth seed against a No. 11 is bizarre enough — teams with such high seeds have never met in a Final Four — but having two schools from nonpower conferences square off is astounding.
    Especially with Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and Ohio State sitting at home.
    Nothing like this has happened since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
    What almost always happens is something similar to the second matchup — Connecticut against Kentucky, upset winners by seed only.
    The Wildcats, a No. 4 seed, own the most NCAA Tournament victories, and since winning their seventh national championship in 1998, the third-seeded Huskies have won two.
    Teams from the Big East, with all of its basketball power, and the Southeastern Conference, with its football-funded wealth, have standing reservations to play for championships.
    Teams from Butler's Horizon Conference and VCU's Colonial Athletic Association are often good for an upset or two a year.
    But this? Butler makes its second straight Final Four appearance, and the Rams, whose NCAA Tournament qualifications were loudly questioned, were resigned to the First Four and became the first team to win five tournament games to reach the national semifinals.
    "It's not as though we felt we could only win the first game," Smart said. "They believed they were going to win throughout the tournament."
    That belief wasn't based on experience. VCU had never even been to a Sweet 16.
    If Kentucky and UConn are first families of college basketball, VCU and Butler toil among the working-class masses known as the midmajors.
    The image doesn't work for Butler coach Brad Stevens.
    "It doesn't matter where you're from or how big your football program is or how much money is in your athletic department," Stevens said. "It's about a group of kids coming together. Five guys play on a court hopefully believing together that give you a great shot to compete."
    Who's to argue?
    But let's just say the numbers favor the first families.
    Revenue generated from basketball for Butler and VCU, according to federal figures from the previous school year, is about $7.6 million. Connecticut stands at $7.7 million and Kentucky $16.7 million.
    The Colonial and Horizon combined for about 75 games on the ESPN family of networks this season for all games. The Big East had about as many conference games (73) televised on national TV.
    VCU played in the Bracketbusters this year, Butler has in previous years. Kentucky and UConn, uh, don't do Bracketbusters.
    Butler guard Shelvin Mack grew up in Lexington, Ky., a fan of the Wildcats. He was not recruited by Kentucky.
    Several New England schools made offers to VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez, who played high school ball in Florida. Connecticut wasn't among them.
    Then there's Calipari's salary, and Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun's experience. Calhoun is 68, one year older than the combined ages of Stevens, 34, and Smart, 33.
    Calhoun jokingly called them "my two sons" earlier this week.
    The coaches provide perhaps the most fascinating contrast of the weekend. Calhoun and Calipari are established, well-compensated and have known their share of troubles.
    Calhoun has been suspended by the NCAA for the first three Big East games next year for failing to maintain an atmosphere of compliance in his program when a former team manager illegally helped guide a recruit to UConn.
    Because of NCAA violations, Calipari's name and his team's performances have been vacated from NCAA records for his first two Final Four appearances — Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008.
    Is this Stevens and Smart 20 years from now?
    From an NCAA trouble standpoint, it sounds as if Calhoun is betting against it.
    "Brad is the epitome of what you want our profession to represent," Calhoun said. "And all I have to do is watch VCU play, and I know they're an extension of their coach."
    The Final Four elder statesmen climbed the coaching ranks — Calhoun started at Northeastern, Calipari at UMass — and at least Stevens has resisted overtures from other programs in the previous three years.
    "Butler is an unbelievable place to work, I feel incredibly empowered," Stevens said. "I'm happy to be a part of it."
    This week, any coach young or old, rich or richer, with high-profile recruits or not, would feel the same way.
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