HOUSTON — The VCU players sat at home last year, watched Butler almost win the national championship and thought, sure, that could be us someday. Sort of the same way people dream about winning the lottery.
Well, the numbers came up for the Rams this year. Same thing for Kentucky, Connecticut and Butler again, too, in a way the NCAA tournament has never seen before.
The teams arrived at the Final Four on Thursday, all after a season of playing the underdog at one point or another — a season that produced a final weekend hardly anyone saw coming.
"Crisis mode," Wildcats coach John Calipari said in describing Kentucky's status after a loss to Arkansas dropped his team to 19-8, pedestrian by standards in the Bluegrass State.
"Our next games were home against Florida, home against Vanderbilt and at Tennessee. Shoot, we lose those and maybe we're not in the tournament."
They weren't the only ones with that empty feeling at some point in 2010-11.
Connecticut was picked 10th in the Big East.
VCU was listed as a preseason 5,000-1 longshot.
Butler was 14-9 and riding a three-game losing streak in early February.
"I never thought we'd be sitting here," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said when asked what he thought of his team's prospects at that point. "It's hard. But if you have guys willing to work through it, it can happen."
In the first semifinal Saturday, eighth-seeded Butler (27-9) will play 11th-seeded VCU (23-11), in a matchup of underdog mid-majors that some might consider more fitting for the Maui Invitational than a Final Four bracket.
In the second game, it's No. 3 Connecticut (30-9) vs. No. 4 Kentucky (29-8) in the rematch of a game that really was played at the Maui Classic. UConn won 84-67 back on Nov. 24. A trip to Houston wasn't on anyone's mind back then.
"That game showed what we could be and certainly what John needed to fix," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said of Calipari. "It turned out, I needed to fix some things, too, but it was later because the problems showed up in the Big East."
By solving the problems, UConn has landed in probably the most inconceivable foursome in Final Four history — not a single No. 1 or 2 seed for the first time ever, and a group of teams chosen by a grand total of three people out of more than 8 million entrants in bracket contests run by ESPN and Yahoo.
"At first, it was the selection and how we shouldn't be in the tournament," VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "Then it became, we can't do this in this game, we won't be able to do that in that game. We keep proving people wrong, and now, we're here."