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A Final Foursome nobody expected

Connecticut, Virginia Commonwealth, Kentucky and Butler are set to gather next weekend for . . .

A symposium on anthropological studies?

A barbeque?

The Ultimate Frisbee national intramural championships?

Actually, it's the last place you'd have thought these schools would end up: the Final Four in Houston.

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Connecticut and Butler booked passage Saturday, with VCU (shockingly, over Kansas) and Kentucky (not as shockingly, over North Carolina) filling the final two slots Sunday.

VCU who?

The names are Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell.

They are coached by Shaka Smart, who graduated magna cum laude from Kenyon College, although none of the smart money this year was on him.

Knocking Kansas out Sunday proved the Rams can head butt:

Borrowing a line from the movie "Major League," Smart said, "There's only one thing left to do, win the whole . . . thing."

One national semifinal will pit Connecticut, the ninth-place team out of the Big East, against Kentucky, which needed a last-second shot in the opening round just to escape Princeton.

Kentucky is making its first Final Four appearance since 1998.

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The Wildcats were supposed to do this . . . last year, when they had John Wall, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins but couldn't find their tournament way past West Virginia.

"We got Kentucky back," forward Josh Harrellson said after Sunday's East Regional victory over North Carolina. "And a lot of people doubted us this year. . . . A lot of people didn't think we could be the team we are."

Connecticut missed last year's NCAA tournament, and until about three weeks ago, it appeared Belmont was more of a threat to reach the Final Four.

The coaching matchup box alone, Jim Calhoun vs. John Calipari, is layered with wins, nuance, NCAA inquiry and the kind of frost that could threaten a citrus crop.

Butler vs. VCU is just, well, absurd — a No. 8 vs. a No. 11, with the winner playing for the national title?

The coaches, Smart (33) and Brad Stevens (34), don't even add up to Calhoun's age (69).

Butler had its "Hoosiers" ride last year when the Bulldogs made a historic run to the title game in their own city, Indianapolis.

Losing storybook hero Gordon Hayward to the NBA was supposed to make Butler recede into the Hinkle Fieldhouse woodwork.

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VCU was a 350-to-1 shot to win the NCAA title when the tournament started. That made them nags, not Rams. VCU had to argue its way into the 68-team field, defeat USC in a preliminary game, and now hopes to become the first team to win seven games en route to an NCAA title.

This is the Frozen (stare) Four.

Connecticut needed five straight Big East tournament wins just to boost its seeding to a No. 3, while Kentucky (obviously) deserved better than its No. 4.

This marks the first time since seeding began in 1979 that no No. 1 or No. 2 made the Final Four.

The averaging seeding, 6.5, is also an all-time low.

This hasn't been your average NCAA season — almost all the experts had it wrong.

Sports Illustrated's preseason top five: Duke, Michigan State, Kansas State, Villanova and Pittsburgh.

The Associated Press thought it was Duke, Michigan State, Kansas State, Ohio State and Pitt.

ESPN had 14 of its basketball junkies handicap the field. Twelve of the 14 failed to pick any of the schools that ended up in the Final Four.

Dick Vitale, who anointed Ohio State, Louisville, Duke and Pittsburgh, went "oh-for-O'baby!"

Two experts, Jay Bilas and Jay Williams, got one team right: Connecticut.

The "expert" from the Los Angeles Times (me) had two teams still standing Saturday night — North Carolina and Kansas — before morning (and those teams) broke on Sunday.

Never has a regular season been more irrelevant in forecasting success in the tournament.

We invested five months of sweat and television toil and it came down to two wild whirlwind weekends that rendered the Bluegrass Boys, a break-even Big East team, an at-large from the Colonial Athletic Assn. and the Horizon League tournament champion.

VCU is only the third No. 11 to make the Final Four, joining Louisiana State in 1986 and George Mason in 2006.

VCU, which just rock-shocked Kansas, lost to Georgia State on Jan. 3 by 10.

And you thought Butler had a miracle run last year as a No. 5?

Connecticut dropped four of its last five Big East games before embarking on a nine-game, 19-day rampage.

Calhoun couldn't resist poking fun at CBS/TBS "round mound" analyst Charles Barkley, who has been critical of the Big East.

"I've heard people call us the 'Big Least,'" Calhoun said. "The large gentleman that called us that. The ninth-place team in the Big Least is now in the Final Four."

Kentucky's win against Princeton came on star Brandon Knight's only basket of the game.

Butler appeared hopelessly lost when it lost to Youngstown State on Feb. 3. The Bulldogs haven't lost since.

Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, two heavyweight holdovers from last season, have carried their team to Houston.

Butler, though, might not have survived its NCAA opener against Old Dominion if not for Howard's put-back game-winner at the buzzer. It was Howard again to the rescue in that craziest-ever ending against Pittsburgh. Butler then muscled out a win over Wisconsin and outlasted Florida in overtime.

"We kind of stayed together, stayed the course, figured it out, and just played resiliently and played," Stevens explained Saturday after claiming the Southeast Regional. "The fun part of a coach at this time of the year is you know all that went into it. . . . You know what it was like after we got beat by Youngstown State and nobody on our bus really ducked their head or shied away from what appeared at the time to be tough sledding."

It's not a sled anymore, Brad.

It's a bandwagon.

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