Posted by Matt Norlander
Wanted to surprise you with this on a Monday leading up to the Final Four. We could've waited until next Tuesday to do this, but I didn't want to chop off any more candidates than necessary; with the tournament we've had so far, it's very possible Nos. 9 and 10 on this list would no longer apply after the Final Four is complete. How would you grade this year's NCAA tournament? It fits the mold of unpredictable as well as any that have come before it, surely. In looking at the Final Four, perhaps more so. We've not had too many iconic games, though the No. 1 on this list definitely is that.
I had 16 tilts worth considering. You know it's a good year if you've got more than two or three games on the cutting room floor. Let's get to listing!
10. Butler 60, Old Dominion 58. I was going to put VCU's handling of Kansas here, but this game gave us a true buzzer-beater, thanks to Matt Howard's placement near the rim just as time expired. But unless Andrew Smith (someone really needs to write a column on this kid and his value to the team this week) doesn't give the ball that volleyball tap and let Howard snag it, the game goes to overtime. Love when 8-9s play out like all 8-9s should. This one did. WATCH.
9. North Carolina 86, Washington 83. I waxed about all that went wrong with this game right here. But it was a really, really fun watch, as many expected it to be. In fact, if Venoy Overton doesn't go all Venoy Overton, the odds UW wins this game increase by about 300 percent. Those 2 vs. 7 games in the "second" round, as it was previously called, almost always give us at least two really close ones. Washington lived up to its dangerous March reputation. WATCH.
8. VCU 72, Florida State 71 (OT). You're not guaranteed to make this list if you went into overtime (San Diego State-Temple had two extra sessions, but it's not among the group here), but it certainly helps. While Ohio State and Kentucky were waging one of the best battles of the tournament, at the same time, VCU was trying to get past another BCS school en route to the Final Four. The Rams can thank Derwin Kitchen for some unbelievable brain cramps on the court. Remember: this was the only game so far this tournament in which VCU won by single digits. The fact their five-game run only warrants one spot on this list is as surprising as anything else in this post. Joey Rodriguez's on-a-dime pass off the inbound to Bradford Burgess is one of the more clutch, headier plays of this tournament. WATCH.
7. Arizona 70, Texas 69. Texas had this game, folks. Like, really had it. Had it and blew it. Had it so bad, Horns fans have to hope it's still eating away at Rick Barnes. There was the bad five-second call, the unexplainable timeout by Jordan Hamilton ... but what was J'Covan Brown doing walking his dog up the court when less than seven seconds remained? He was forced to hurry and take a tough layup amongst the trees. Not elite basketball or officiating, but a high-energy game from start to finish. The tournament often lacks that constant adrenaline in most games. This one didn't. Arizona is perhaps the most dramatic NCAA tournament team in history. WATCH.
6. Temple 66, Penn State 64. And this one was considered to be the worst matchup, on paper, of the first weekend. Life: ironic often. Temple advanced thanks to Juan Fernandez giving us what was almost a true buzzer-beater. Fernandez's shot came from 18 feet and fell through with just less than a second remaining. Fran Dunphy's 11-game NCAA tournament losing streak: over. A lot of people missed the ending to this one, as it came on that opening Thursday afternoon, where we had a lot of close games. Including the next one listed. WATCH.
5. Morehead State 62, Louisville 61. This was the upset of the first weekend, and I was lucky enough to see it in person. Kenneth Faried had the block of the tournament as far as I'm concerned. Here's my reasoning: Mike Marra of Louisville has the ball far out on the wing. He's a good shooter. If he gets the shot off and it goes in, Morehead State goes home. No other game-saving block was under such do-or-die circumstances. Plus, Faried doesn't play out on the wing all that much; he was in somewhat-foreign territory. And he got all ball. Just utter denial. Oh, right, and Demonte Harper's 3 right in Peyton Siva's eye before that, when Morehead State was down by two. Onions! Raftery was in the house for the call. WATCH.
4. Butler 74, Florida 71 (OT). Butler is the anti-VCU in this respect: it's winning all of its games so closely. This one had the Bulldogs down 11 with 10 minutes to go. When Florida got its lead to that margin, I thought to myself, Butler's run coming to an end here, and I can't believe Florida is a Final Four team. Then Brad Stevens inserted this player no one had heard of, Chrishawn Hopkins, and he buries a 3. Amazing substitution that Butler going and propelled them to overtime, and a win. Savvy coaching. Love the rogue substitution. Hopkins wasn't even on the Florida scouting report, nor should he have been; the kid played garbage minutes most of the year. Can't finish this without repeating: Shelvin Mack, Shelvin Mack, Shelvin Mack. Twenty-seven points and a huge defensive effort. WATCH.
3. Connecticut 65, Arizona 63. Told you how the Wildcats drift to the drama. UConn defeating them is No. 3 on the list, for no other reason, than Derrick Williams. Yeah, Arizona lost, but OMGTHATDUNK. Meanwhile, Jeremy Lamb going ham (what does this mean?) sends UConn on to the next round. No game felt more go-go-go and highly energized than this one. You get the feeling if they played another 40 minutes, it would've been just as intense. The fact UConn's doing this and not tiring is another issue altogether. Kudos to both teams for giving us another Elite Eight game in what may have been the best batch of regional finals in tournament history. Think about it: VCU romps Kansas, but it's hypnotizing; Kentucky and UNC keep it close and quick and chippy throughout; and Butler-Florida. Tough to top. WATCH.
2. Kentucky 62, Ohio State 60. The marquee matchup of the Sweet 16 more than delivered. You had two big shots in the final seconds, and no timeouts to slow the game down. Kind of like that 2004 Elite Eight game, also in Jersey, between St. Joe's and Oklahoma State. Jon Deibler's 3, which came off a broken play, he told me afterward, and Brandon Knight's second game-winning shot of the tournament (he had that one against Princeton, too) was one of four or five punch/punch-back sequences in this dance. The arena had such an emotional tug with this. Whenever the No. 1 overall seed goes down prior to the Final Four, it's probably going to make this list. Sullinger promised he was coming back afterward. WATCH.
1. Butler 71, Pittsburgh 70. You'll find little argument from others about this one sitting atop the 2011 mountaint. I have to cop: I didn't see most of this game, and I hate myself for it, but I was busy writing in Denver off Morehead State's loss. But ask those who were there, and those who watched: this was high-quality basketball ... until the final few seconds when, you know what happened. The two inexplicable fouls, a scenario never to be repeated. What's amazing about that: we often remember the clutch, big shots. With this game, it's the dumb plays that make it so memorable. Pittsburgh fails to reach another Final Four, and the genesis of Butler's second straight Final Four run, although it began with No. 10 on this list, will be remembered because of this classic. WATCH.Photos: AP
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