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Why losing Ashley Judd could kill Houston's Final Four: Pitiful UConn fans create title game worry

Why losing Ashley Judd could kill Houston's Final Four: Pitiful UConn fans create title game worry

Butler VCU tip
Reliant Stadium was filled with more 75,000 fans for the Final Four semifinals. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
News_002_Big Dance_April 2001_Kings of Leon.jpg
But some fans felt like the free Big Dance concert was even more hopping. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchlightGroup.com
Kemba Walker Kentucky
Kemba Walker's March may not be fully appreciated by his fans, but Houston's should buy in. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Butler VCU tip
News_002_Big Dance_April 2001_Kings of Leon.jpg
Kemba Walker Kentucky

With Houston's Final Four at its absolute loudest — with a crowd of 75,421 finally flexing its full power, with the scene playing out like the H-Town power brokers who fought for this event always envisioned — a 19-year-old turns to his coach and tells him to chill.

UConn's Jim Calhoun is freaking out, convinced that the freshman who's never been afraid of "The Dragon" has finally met a moment he cannot match. Calhoun desperately wants to find the right words to calm Shabazz Napier, to tell him not to worry about the turnover that almost cost the Huskies their season, the miss dribble that almost ended Kemba Walker's marvelous run. Napier still has to be carrying that, right?

It happened only a moment ago and UConn just barely dodged disaster when DeAndre Liggins — Kentucky's best outside shooter — missed a 3-pointer. Surely, Shabazz is spooked.

"I was so concerned during the timeout that he'd be so concerned about losing the basketball, dribbling into traffic," Calhoun says later. "He looked straight at me and said, 'Coach, I'll make up for it on the next play.' What am I going to say?"

Nothing. Napier has this, sinking two clutch free throws to salt away UConn's 56-55 win over Kentucky, to make the only buzzer beater of the night mean nothing. It's that kind of night at Reliant Stadium.

The Final Four returns to Houston for the first time in 40 years and it's no big stress. It's a major event sure, one that brought out George and Barbara Bush and Ashley Judd too. But this is Houston. We do big events all the time.

This isn't Indianapolis. Houston does not need a Final Four to validate it.

That might have been the case when the Super Bowl came to town in 2004, when it seemed like the whole world came with it and nothing else in the city mattered. But seven years later?

We've got this. It will be flawlessly executed and everyone will leave happy. If not exactly completely thrilled. That's the thing about this semifinal Saturday, about Butler over VCU 70-62 and UConn's gut check.

The games were close, but not exactly electric.

Houston set the all-time Final Four attendance record with 75,421 fans in the building. But it wasn't exactly difficult to get a ticket. You didn't have to be an oil tycoon to afford a good seat. The average Shell worker could have easily been sitting in the lower bowl for a few hundred dollars.

Excuse a few if they're wondering what all the fuss is about right now too.

"To be honest," first-time Final Four-attendee Gary Larson says, looking around Reliant, at all the people and the raised sparkling Space City tribute floor. "We had more fun at the Big Dance concert."

The NCAA may be putting on the first Final Four where the free concerts draw more word-of-mouth than the games themselves. That's both a compliment and a curse.

For the NCAA's long fretted over the idea that relatively few people who actually live in the towns where it holds its mega college basketball events get into the actual games. The organization's put in wonderful programs to try and counteract that, from the free A-list musical acts to the Sunday afternoon Final Four Dribble event that guarantees any kid who signed up a free T-shirt and free admission to Bracket Town.

Now that there's finally a Final Four where almost anyone with some disposable income can get into though, enough people may not want to go. And Monday night presents an even greater challenge.

Star Power Outage

Kentucky carried Reliant on Saturday. From the rafters, the giant stadium looked like a sea of blue. At court level, it sounded much the same.

"We're used to playing in front of large crowds at home," Wildcats forward Josh Harrellson says. "We sell out every game, 24,000. This was triple that."

And it seemed like two thirds of them were from Kentucky, surely felt like that when they screamed at opposing star Kemba Walker. The UConn section looked rather embarrassing as the notion that the school simply doesn't travel was reinforced.

"I saw a few students from my classes," Huskies center Alexi Oriakhi insists. "It says something that they came all this way."

It says they left a whole lot of people at home too.

The crowd news didn't get much better in the earlier semifinal either. Butler — for all its sudden history, despite the fact that the Bulldogs could be considered the legitimate favorite in Monday night's national championship game — is not the Boston Red Sox. The school's enrollment is under 5,000.

VCU fans — who finally started believing in their team three NCAA Tournament sites too late — easily overpowered the Butler crowd. So the bigger draw in each of the semifinal games is gone, beaten by a tougher team.

No one shows that toughness more than Walker, the breakout story of this tournament. He's so much of a better, more complete player than the fawned over Jimmer Fredette, who's been in Houston this week, doing what a marquee attraction who doesn't have a game to play does.

Kemba has more pressing matters, championship matters.

And there UConn's 6-foot-1 blurring flash of a determination is, standing on wobbly legs as Kentucky tries to make its comeback, in arguably the only NCAA Tournament game in history when the clock never seemed to get stopped.

But after giving UConn everything he had, Walker's still trying to do more, telling Napier "You'd better make these" before the freshman steps to the line. See, Kemba knows what Calhoun forgot.

The freshman is at his best when he thinks someone else is freaking over him. That's why he is the only player Calhoun can remember who brushes off the coach when he's in full "dragon" mode, spewing spittle in a jersey.

"Shabazz will throw a crazy pass out of bounds and tell me with a straight face, 'He should have had it,' " Calhoun laughs. "And I'll say, 'But you threw it 10 feet over his head.' The other guy should have had it."

Napier shrugs in the locker room. You don't chose to wear No. 13 if you're not fearless.

"As long as Oriakhi didn't say anything to me I knew I'd be all right," Napier says. "Because he always makes me crack up. And you don't want to be laughing in that situation."

You don't want to be laughing at this Final Four either. There's still the chance for what Jim Nantz is already calling, "The greatest upset story ever in college basketball." It's still major power versus a small school. The opportunity still exists for a classic championship game to make up for the good, but not great ones on Saturday night.

And maybe best yet, Houstonians figure to be the ones filling a lot of those seats left empty by the Kentucky horde and the VCU late believers.

UConn has some pathetic fans. Butler just isn't that big. No problem.

Houston's got this. Like usual.