College Hoops Recap: Butler Buzzer Beater

You can find my column for CBS Charlotte, in which I break down the five most important things that happened in college basketball this past weekend, by clicking the link below:

Five Things: Butler Prevails In Battle Of Bulldogs And The Number 1 Team Goes Down…Again

It was a fantastic Saturday in college hoops, which was fitting because it was the first Saturday without college or pro football this season. I got the sense that casual hoops fans were beginning to turn their attention to the sport, and the sport didn’t disappoint. The highlight of the weekend was Butler’s buzzer-beating victory over Gonzaga.
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Butler Loses to UConn in National Championship

“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Oh, right, I don’t have to steal a lede because the mid-major school with the enrollment of 3,600 and basketball budget that just this season cracked the top 100 (but still ranks just 98) did not win the national championship. Then again, perhaps the fact that it found itself in the game for the second straight year warrants its inclusion. Butler did a lot of things more difficult than beating Connecticut in the past two seasons, but Butler did not beat Connecticut so here we are.

If you wanted a thorough breakdown of the game itself, you came to the wrong place. Then again, where would you go for such a thing? I’d say the box score does the trick. Butler could not put the ball in the basket—not from close (3-for-31), from far (9-of-33 on threes), or even that well when there was literally no defense (8-of-14 from the free throw line).

Butler star Shelvin Mack had scored 24 in the semifinal game just two days before, his third time scoring at least that many in this Tournament, but he missed two open layups in the first few possessions that proved to be foretelling. The Bulldogs led 25-19 after hitting a three to open the half, but then shot an unfathomably bad 1-of-23 over a 13 minute span, scoring just three points as UConn built a 13-point lead.

I’d say this best sums up Butler’s offensive woes: Two days later, I can recall every two-point basket (who made it, where they were on the floor) and could probably reconstruct most of the threes, too, if I really thought about it.

It’s a testament to how good the Bulldogs are at other phases of the game that at the under-12 media timeout in the second half they were only down five. But at the end Butler was down 11, 53-41, in the lowest scoring national championship game since 1949.

So Butler does not get to put a national title banner in Hinkle Fieldhouse but it does get to hang another Final Four banner, and that is utterly remarkable. Butler trailed by six to UTEP in its opening round game of last year’s NCAA Tournament, then played tight games with Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State before losing to Duke. This year, as an 8-seed, the Bulldogs beat Old Dominion at the buzzer, knocked off Pitt by one in a game analysts are still trying to understand, and, later, topped Florida in overtime.

Much of America was hoping this year’s title game would be a lot like the 2010 version except, you know, Butler would win. The stars certainly seemed aligned as UConn was a weaker foe than Duke. Of course the opponent becomes inconsequential when you can’t make a basket.

But I urge you, regardless of your level of college basketball fandom, to remember Butler not for its inability to play well in one particular game, but its ability to play extremely well in so many other games these past two years. It is extraordinarily difficult to navigate through an NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas, and so many other really good teams found out this year and every year. Butler managed to do it twice, coming up just one win short each time.

You could look at Monday night as a missed opportunity, as a second chance that is rarely given in sports, especially sports that crown their champion through a single elimination, month-long tournament. And, in many ways, it was that. But Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs capitalized on so many other opportunities that will have far more lasting effects than a win would have.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

NCAA Tournament 2011: Final Four Preview

(Credit: NCAA)

The 2011 Final Four in Houston will be a memorable one. We know this before the games are even played because of the teams involved: Kentucky, which will play Connecticut, and Butler, which faces Virginia Commonwealth. In a year when you should be proud of yourself for correctly predicting one Final Four team and should get your own college hoops radio show if you got two, let’s take a look at some of the facts, figures, and other tidbits relating to the 2011 Final Four.

  • As far as seeds, this is the highest cumulative number in a Final Four (11 + 8 + 4 + 3 = 26), breaking the previous high of 22 in 2000.
  • Two of the teams were unranked in the preseason polls: UConn and VCU. Kentucky, ranked 10/11 in the preseason, remained in the polls all season while Butler (preseason 17/18) fell out after two weeks and never returned. UConn entered the polls in Week 4 and never left. According to TheresAStatForThat.blogspot.com, this is only the fifth time since 1989 (when the polls expanded to 25 teams) that a Final Four matchup features teams unranked at any point during the season (and, as noted, in this case neither was ranked for all but two weeks of the season).
  • This is the first time there is no 1 or 2 seed in the Final Four. Three 1 or 2 seeds played in regional finals (Kansas, North Carolina, and Florida), but all lost to lower seeds.
  • This is the first time since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two teams outside of the BCS conferences are in the Final Four (and first time since 1979, when Indiana State and Penn both made it).
  • Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. VCU coach Shaka Smart is 33. Those two ages combined do not reach 68, the age of UConn coach Jim Calhoun. It could be the lowest combined age of coaches in a Final Four matchup, but I’m not certain of that.
  • Two of the teams—UConn and VCU—were not in the Tournament last year. The two that were, however, did quite well. Kentucky lost in the Elite 8 and Butler, as I’m sure you remember, was the national runner-up.
  • There are probably not a ton of future NBA players in this year’s group, especially on the right side of the bracket, which is unusual. According to The Wall Street Journal, 94 of the 96 teams that reached the Final Four between 1985 and 2008 had at least one player who eventually appeared in an NBA game. In fact, 91 percent of the teams over that span had at least two such players and the majority of teams had at least four. Kentucky and UConn are both young teams but appear to fit the mold, while Butler and VCU certainly do not. Both teams have just two players each on ESPN’s draft tracker, and all four of those players are listed as “second round to undrafted.” Neither NBADraft.net nor DraftExpress.com have any Butler or VCU players getting selected in their 2011 mock drafts.
  • Only VCU did not win its conference tournament, as the Rams lost in the CAA finals, but given their extra NCAA Tourney game, they are on a five-game win streak. UConn had its historic run in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days, so the Huskies enter Houston on a nine-game win streak. Kentucky’s streak is at 10, while Butler’s is at an impressive 13.

Kentucky Wildcats

  • John Calipari is taking his third team to the Final Four (UMass and Memphis were the others), joining Rick Pitino (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) as the only coach ever to do that. Calipari’s previous two appearances were eventually vacated.
  • Kentucky has already gone one step further than it did last season despite losing five players (four freshmen and a junior) in last year’s NBA Draft.
  • Young teams have more room for improvement, and Kentucky has certainly improved as the season has progressed. Evidence of this is UK’s win over North Carolina in the regional final, as the Cats had lost to UNC earlier in the season. Kentucky will get a chance to prove this again on Saturday—they also lost to UConn, 84-67, back in November.
  • Darius Miller was a starter last season and DeAndre Liggins played 15 minutes a game, but the other four players in Kentucky’s rotation have little big-game experience. Three are freshmen and the other is Josh Harrellson, a senior who averaged just four minutes per game last season and played a total of six in last year’s Tourney.
  • Speaking of Harrellson, where did this guy come from? He has upped his season averages in all major categories, tallying 14.7 points and 9 rebounds a game in the Tournament. Most impressive was his ability to guard Ohio State All-America center Jared Sullinger one-on-one, which allowed the rest of the Kentucky defenders to stay home on OSU’s deadly three-point shooters. I realize last year’s squad was loaded with talent—including two frontcourt players that were lottery picks—but I find it hard to believe that Harrellson couldn’t have contributed. Then again, I have not coached three different schools to the Final Four.

Connecticut Huskies

  • This is UConn’s fourth appearance in the Final Four (all under Jim Calhoun) and all four times the Huskies have emerged from the West Region.
  • UConn is now 12-0 in tournament games this season, having won three to claim the Maui Invitational title, five to win the Big East tournament, and four so far in the Big Dance.
  • UConn has not lost an out of conference game this season (15-0).
  • Of the names that have surfaced over the course of the season for Player of the Year—Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Jared Sullginer, Nolan Smith—only Walker is still playing. (That being said, Jimmer is still going to win the award.)
  • Walker is the unquestioned leader of this very young UConn squad. According to KenPom.com’s experience rating, which takes into account minutes played, the Huskies rank 332 out of 345 teams, second lowest among BCS schools.
  • I questioned whether UConn’s season had peaked in Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament and if the Huskies had anything in the tank for the Big Dance. Boy was that silly.

Butler Bulldogs

  • When Gordon Hayward declared for the NBA Draft, the national sentiment was, “That’s too bad, this team could’ve made a serious run next year, too.” Instead, following somewhat of a similar script to last year—ranked in preseason, written off in regular season, improbable run to Final Four—the Bulldogs have wowed the nation again.
  • It’s been said a lot already, including multiple times by my roommate Ryan, who picked Butler to reach Houston, but here it is again: This year’s Butler is…Butler!
  • Brad Stevens is the youngest coach to reach two Final Fours. His calm sideline demeanor has been a big reason why. In Underdawgs, a book by Indianapolis Star columnist David Woods about Butler’s memorable run last season, I learned that Stevens often settles his team in late-game huddles by telling them, “We’re going to win this game.” Consecutive Final Fours seem wildly improbable to outsiders, but to those within the Butler program it was expected. To expect and to achieve are two very different things, but it’s hard to do the latter without believing you can.
  • Butler has the most big game experience of any of the Final Four teams and it’s not even close.
  • Here is my thoroughly detailed, heavily researched analysis of Butler’s offense: Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard can get you 20 points each, and the others chip in here and there and somehow at the end of the game they have more points than the other team.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams

  • VCU is the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. From the First Four to the Final Four—truly remarkable.
  • As an 11 seed, VCU has tied the mark for the highest seed to reach the Final Four. LSU in 1986 and George Mason (more on them later) in 2006 are the others.
  • VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. I repeat: VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. The Rams have won their five Tourney games by margins of 13, 18, 18, 1 (overtime), and 10, an average margin of 15. They’ve been putting teams away early, too, holding a double-digit halftime lead in three of those games. These would be impressive performances by a 1 seed, and is absolutely mind-blowing for an 11 seed.
  • I don’t think this is as big a deal as others are making it out to be, but VCU has defeated teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 en route to the Final Four. It will now face a team from the Horizon with a chance to play an SEC school in the finals.
  • Shaka Smart, in just his second season as a head coach after serving as an assistant at Florida, Clemson, and Akron, seems to be a great tournament coach. You know what he’s done this season, but last year VCU won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
  • Wait, VCU was in the CBI last year? Yes, and it’s yet another fact that underscores how improbable this run really is. People made a big deal of UNC’s turnaround—the Heels were one game away from the Final Four after not qualifying for the Tourney last year—but they went to the finals of the NIT. What Smart has done in year two is incredible.
  • This explains why most of the Rams did not bother to watch the Selection Show.
  • The obvious comparison is to George Mason, a fellow Colonial team that got a questionable at-large bid and marched to the Final Four as an 11 seed. A key difference, if I recall correctly, is that Mason was viewed as a dangerous team entering the Dance. The invitation still came as a surprise after the early exit from the CAA tournament, but many felt George Mason had a team capable of pulling off an upset or two. The same can’t be said of VCU, which was viewed as undeserving and not all that good.
  • I was not in favor of expanding the field and VCU’s run does not change my opinion. However, the Rams’ Tournament run has been unbelievably exciting and had the field not expanded, they almost certainly would not have received a bid, so it’s not all bad.
  • There is a very fine line between making the Final Four and getting bounced earlier in the Tournament. Kentucky needed a basket with two seconds left to beat Princeton by two in its opening game. It got another basket in the final seconds to beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16. UConn led by just one with less than two minutes left against San Diego State and survived two three-point attempts in the closing seconds that would have given Arizona a win in the regional final. Butler has been on a wild ride, beating Old Dominion at the buzzer, Pittsburgh by one, and Florida by three in overtime. VCU, of course, was one of the last teams invited to the Tournament.

Related Articles:

UConn’s path to Final Four
Kentucky’s path to Final Four
Butler’s path to Final Four

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