Good-vs.-evil theme not contrived notion among semifinalists

HOUSTON — The open practice was about to end, and Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart jumped into his team’s final drill.

He ran to one baseline, took a charge, jumped up, ran to a sideline, dived for a loose ball, jumped up, ran to the other sideline and saved a ball bouncing out of bounds by slapping it back onto the court.

His players surrounded him, offering chest bumps and high-fives.

If there is such a thing anymore as the innocence of college basketball — let us know if you find the one person who believes in it — that scene Friday was as close as you will ever come.

A young, energetic, up-and-coming coach celebrating his team’s improbable March run with the players who delivered it.

Kentucky was next to practice at Reliant Stadium.

It is coached by John Calipari.

So much for innocence.

The theme of Good vs. Evil when describing this year’s Final Four has been more prevalent here than weather warm enough to hint at another sticky Texas summer. It isn’t a contrived notion to create headlines. There’s some meat to it.

Butler plays VCU in one national semifinal tonight, and Kentucky meets Connecticut in the other, and you shouldn’t need more than a second to decipher which game many feel defines all that is right about college basketball and which defines all that is wrong with it.

Screamed one headline: "Cinderella vs. Sinners."

Kentucky is the third team Calipari has led to the Final Four, and yet in the eyes of those who dispense punishment for the NCAA, it is his first. He had Final Four appearances vacated at Massachusetts and Memphis for rules violations.

He isn’t listed in the NCAA’s findings at either stop but was steering the ship during those cheating times, plotting its course, recruiting the star — Marcus Camby — who took money from an agent and the one — Derrick Rose — who refused to cooperate once his ACT score was questioned and eventually invalidated.

"I don’t deal with that," Calipari said. "We’ve been to the (Final Four) three times. Those players played those games and did what they were supposed to do. It has been fun. It has been a good experience. This is going to be a good experience."

He was then asked if he considers himself the present-day version of former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. "I respect everything Jerry did, his kids, how they played," Calipari said. "But I’m the 2011 John Calipari."

Jim Calhoun is also here, the Connecticut boss who Monday evening could become the fifth coach in history to win at least three national titles. His would join the names of Wooden, Rupp, Krzyzewski and Knight.

Two months ago, the NCAA cited Calhoun for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance and suspended him for three conference games next season while his program was hit with scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions.

"Right now, I’m preparing for Kentucky, watching my grandchildren do things," Calhoun said. "I can’t control what other people say. I am who I am, what I am, and am very comfortable with that."

Last year in Indianapolis, the fairy tale of Butler and its young coach — Brad Stevens — played out just miles from its campus, and most hoped beyond hope that the Bulldogs would be the last team standing and perhaps forever alter the sport’s landscape.

They are back now, and you have to believe advancing to consecutive Final Fours out of the Horizon League is more impressive than had that final heave fallen against mighty Duke.

They are joined by VCU and its coach, who was accepted to Harvard and instead chose to play small-college basketball at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

"When I worked at Akron under Keith Dambrot, he always would say that one day a midlevel team would win it all," Smart said. "I’d say, ‘You’re wrong, Keith.’ When I was an assistant, I knew everything.

"Keith would remind me of that now. He was right. Butler was a bounce away last year. Who knows, maybe one of us will win it this year. We’re at the Final Four. What more can you say? It’s a phenomenal opportunity for us. Opportunities multiply as they are seized, and we want to seize them with all the energy we have."

Final Fours are as much about storylines as anything.

This one — Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong, Cinderella vs. Sinner — doesn’t disappoint.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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