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


The match-up


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.


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