the 1,000-mile geographical difference and a gaping Gordon Hayward-sized hole
in the roster, the circumstances of Butler's presence in this year's Final Four
could hardly be any further from those of 2010. Last year, they cruised into
the tournament with an outright regular season championship and a mid-season
win over Ohio State, to boot. They were given a five-seed and then easily
disposed of UTEP. A week later, the Hoosiers
comparisons became inescapable as they took a round trip to the Final Four at
Lucas Oil Stadium.
equally dramatic and unlikely, this year's effort has been even more
nonsensical — and thus captivating. Butler started this season 4-4
and had a three-game losing streak in early February that left most of us
thinking it would be another million years before the romanticism of 2010 ever
found its way back to Indiana. This season they lost more games in their first
month than they did in the entire 2009-2010 season.
wasn't just the win/loss column that was cause for concern — Butler
finished the season 177th in rebounds, 190th in assists, 122nd in shooting and
71st in scoring. But somehow they've managed to beat three of the best 16
teams in the country in a single week. That's three more ranked teams than
they beat during the regular season, as they went 0-3 against Duke, Xavier and
Louisville, none of whom survived the Sweet 16.
find out how they've done all this without Hayward, one needs look no further
than the horizontal numbers on the stat sheet next to the name "Matt Howard."
The under-appreciated senior not only helped to reduce the impact of losing
Hayward — Howard has actually surpassed him as a scorer. Considering
Hayward's numbers from 2009-2010 compared to Howard's from this season,
Butler's continued success starts to make a little more sense: Howard has
more points (16.7 to 15.5), better three-point-shooting (43% to 29%), similar
rebounding (7.7 to 8.2) and fewer turnovers.
Picking up the slack
if Butler basketball has taught us anything over the last two years, it's that
statistics and individual accolades are virtually meaningless in the month of
March. It's hard to wish things were different when they've gone so well, but
the last few minutes of these games have been sorely missing Hayward's
crossover-dribble ability to create his own scoring opportunities.
Shelvin Mack has filled that role nicely, but unlike Hayward, he can't pass
the ball to Shelvin Mack when he's double
teamed. And dribbling the length of the floor and heaving up twenty
shots a game would be exhausting for anyone. Enter: Chrishawn
Hopkins and his 1.6 points per game.
three points and one assist against Florida pumped life into Mack and the rest
of the Bulldogs, and the quick five-point swing that ensued when he entered the
game proved to be the turning point. The steady hands of players like
Andrew Smith and Ronald Nored will get Butler through
the game, but the energy and athleticism of Hopkins, Khyle
Marshall and Shawn Vanzant have been — and will
continue to be — Butler's answer to the raw talent gap they face this
into Saturday's game, Butler finds itself in an unfamiliar position for this
time of year: being the favorite to win. Nothing is certain in March, but
Brad Stevens' struggles have typically come against teams with excellent
post-play and aggressive rebounders, and to say that Virginia Commonwealth is
absolutely terrible at rebounding would be an understatement. They
finished the season with the 301st most rebounds, and their victory over Kansas
was largely due to great three-point shooting — which will be much harder
to come by against the Bulldogs' team defense.
VCU expects to win on Saturday, there will need to be a lid over Butler's
basket because it's very difficult to imagine the Rams putting up more than 65
points. They skated past an untested Kansas team despite moments of truly
awful shot selection and a handful of ugly turnovers, and — as usual
— getting out-rebounded.
it's unlikely that Butler will shoot 9.5% from behind the arc like Kansas did.
best hope for VCU is Jamie Skeen, who managed to put up 26 on KU's Morris brothers. He's similar in size and
skill-set to Matt Howard, but if Howard can win, tie or contain the front-court battle against Skeen, Vanzant
and Mack will be free to shut down Joey Rodriguez and the other VCU
sharpshooters in the backcourt.
point guard Joey Rodriguez will get desperate if Skeen is unproductive and may start
chucking three-pointers from four feet behind the line, just like he did
against Kansas when their offense stalled.
Far from home, close to victory
Butler survives VCU on Saturday, there are two teams waiting on the other side
of the bracket that pose threats a little more familiar to Bulldog
fans. Connecticut has been on fire and Kentucky has been, well,
scariest player in the other half of the Final Four is not UConn'sKemba Walker and his nightly 24 points; it's
Kentucky's big bulldozer Josh Harrellson and his nine
rebounds per game. Like Duke's Brian Zoubek did
in last year's national championship game, Harrellson
has the potential to plow through the lane and goad Matt Howard into early foul.
If the battle in the paint between the two beasts neutralizes them both, UK
would happily take that trade-off.
players won't get to sleep in their own beds the night before the game, and
they won't have thousands of their own fans showing up at their shooting
practice. But don't let the easy storyline fool you — the crowd in
last year's semi-final was largely pro-Spartan. The proximity of Butler's
campus to Lucas Oil Stadium wasn't able to compensate for their 30,000-plus size disadvantage to the big state school, and if
they move on to the finals this year, I fully expect that disadvantage to be
exacerbated when they're a 16-hour drive from home.
Stadium in Houston is 1,036 miles from Butler's stadium, compared to the 7-mile
trip to the Final Four they had last year. However, the "Butler
Way" of basketball is played on neither paper nor Mapquest,
and this year's sordid road to the Final Four for the Bulldogs has been far less
traveled. Let's hope that makes all the difference.