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2011 NCAA Final Four: Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart Are in Elite Company

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According to ESPN, only two out of 6 million people got the Final Four correct this year in the ESPN Tournament Challenge. I’m surprised even two people got it right.

Two of the teams in this year’s Final Four - Butler and VCU were not on many people’s radars for even the Sweet 16 let alone the Final Four. Even though Butler came within 2 points of winning the National Title last year, they weren’t picked by many experts to go very far. Turns out they were hardly a fluke last year. Brad Stevens guided his Butler Bulldogs to their second consecutive Final Four, which puts him in elite coaching company.

A little over two weeks ago, VCU Coach Shaka Smart was an unknown coach of a mid-major school known as Virginia Commonwealth University. Many people didn’t even think they would be the sleeper to come out of their bracket. Old Dominion, who they disposed of in the first round was seen as the possible cinderela team. Boy, did everybody get that pick wrong - myself included. I picked ODU to beat VCU in the first round. VCU has now won 13 straight games.

This year’s Final Four features an interesting contrast of coaching matchups. In the other semi-final game, John Calipari and Jim Calhoun face each other. Both Calipari and Calhoun are coaching legends. Calipari has been a head coach (1988 was his first year) since Brad Stevens was in middle school. And, Jim Calhoun has been a head coach since 1972 before Stevens or Smart were born. To really put this in perspective - Jim Calhoun has more head coaching experience than Calipari, Stevens, and Smart combined. Also, Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart's combined age of 67 still doesn't equal Jim Calhoun's age. Calhoun is 68 years old.

On the other side, Stevens and Shaka Smart go head-to-head. Last year, Brad Stevens became the youngest coach to ever go to the Final Four (after the tournament expanded to 64) when he was 34 years old. He’s now the youngest coach to to go two Final Fours and has been a head coach for just 4 seasons. Shaka Smart has been the head coach of VCU since 2009 and has vaulted to the elite ranks of coaches. Now Shaka Smart (at 33) is the youngest coach to coach in a Final Four.

On one side, we have experienced coaching legends in Calipari and Calhoun. And on the other side, Stevens and Smart represent the new wave of the NCAA. Younger coaches can build a quality Division I program without having the name recognition. Added to that, they are from the so-called mid-major schools which were viewed as afterthoughts in the tournament in past years. George Mason proved in 2006 that a small program can make waves in the Big Dance. Now, Butler has illustrated that you don’t have to be a Top-10 team throughout the regular season to become a major player in March.

Brad Stevens was quoted as saying, "I never really thought we'd have a press conference to announce you still have your job." This was after signing a contract extension through 2022, four days after losing the NCAA championship game by two points to Duke. In another ten years we might be putting Brad Stevens in the same company as Coach K and Dean Smith.

VCU proved that George Mason’s historic run wasn’t a fluke. In March, almost any team within the 8 to 12 seed-range can make waves. They just need the coaching to do it.

Sadly, Shaka Smart may be wooed by job offers from bigger programs, which would really be a shame. It’s great for the sport to see a smaller school making waves in March. But, money makes the world go around and you can’t fault Smart for leaving for greener pastures either. It’s ultimately his career and his choice to coach where he desires.

The 2011 NCAA Tournament has taught us that great coaching makes all the difference.  

Contact Dennis Bakay at dbakay@philly2philly.com

Photo of Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens from nydailynews.com

For other hot stories on Philly2Philly.com check out Joe Vallee’s latest story on the Phillies, who came back to win on opening day

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