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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

Wisconsin vs Butler, Florida vs BYU: Sweet 16 Southeast Region Preview

3/25 Update, Postgame Reaction:

Butler 61, Wisconsin 54
When I first got off the escalator at McCarran airport and entered the luggage claim/ground transportation level, I saw a limo driver with a sign that read “Hayward.” No, Brad Stevens was not the driver, and Gordon Hayward certainly was not walking through that door at New Orleans Arena.

Butler didn’t need him. When you hold your opponent to 27 points through essentially three quarters, you can get by with just two superstars instead of three. And make no mistake about it, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are superstars—hard to find a better inside-out scoring duo.

In my preview I wrote that Butler and Wisconsin were similar, but that the Badgers were more efficient in their execution. That sure wasn’t the case last night. I’d like to look into this more in the near future, but Wisconsin’s epically bad shooting performances are almost unfathomable. Last night was very similar to their 36-33 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament. Butler lost its focus in the final few minutes, perhaps thinking the outcome was a given at that point (it was), otherwise Wisconsin’s final output would have been even worse.

Some of the late-game breakdowns aside, can you say anything bad about Stevens and the Bulldogs? This was at least the ninth straight Tourney game in which they seemed so prepared, so poised, and so fun to watch if you’re a basketball purist. They were underdogs against Old Dominion, underdogs against Pittsburgh, and underdogs against Wisconsin. They’ll be underdogs against Florida, too. If the Bulldogs manage to win and you’re surprised, you haven’t been watching them the last couple of years.

On Thursday night, the Sweet 16 games get underway in the West region and Southeast region. In the latter, played in New Orleans, the BYU Cougars play the Florida Gators (7:27 EST, TBS) while the Wisconsin Badgers take on the Butler Bulldogs (9:57, TBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 4 Wisconsin
How they got here: By being the incredibly efficient team they’ve been all season, aiming for substance over style on nearly every possession. Wisconsin’s first opponent, 13 seed Belmont, was a popular upset pick. The Bruins had won 30 games and played a frenetic style that couldn’t be more different from Wisconsin’s. Something had to give, and it was Belmont, which fell to the Badgers 72-58. The Bruins couldn’t get out in transition, and while the Badgers milked the shot clock on nearly every possession, they still shot 50 percent from the floor and 12-of-22 from deep.

Jordan Taylor was badly outplayed by Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen in Round Two, but Wisconsin turned it over just five times and hung on for a 70-65 win. Wisconsin’s other star, Jon Leuer, has scored 22 and 19 points thus far.

Why you should have seen it coming: Wisconsin had two ugly, ugly losses entering the Tournament, but it showed its potential to be an elite team when it beat No. 1 Ohio State in mid-February. Casual fans label Bo Ryan’s style of play as B-O-R-I-N-G, but scoring on a higher percentage of possessions than most every team in the country is what makes Wisconsin so good. This is an easy team to overlook, but not an easy one to overmatch, as two very good teams found out last weekend.

Bo Ryan pretty much always looks like this. (Credit: Lukas Keapproth)

Why they may not go much further: Remember those ugly, ugly losses I mentioned? Yeah, they were ugly. Hard to criticize a team for losing to Ohio State, but a 28-point loss usually doesn’t show up on the resume of an elite team. The Badgers followed that up with a memorable (for all the wrong reasons) performance against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, losing 36-33. Wisconsin shot 2-of-21 from three in that game. Butler won’t be discouraged by Wisconsin’s slow pace, and Florida or BYU could simply outscore them.

Vegas anecdote: The Wisconsin fans sitting in the row behind us were very friendly. They put up with our criticisms of their star player (Taylor was 2-for-16 from the field while his point guard counterpart scored 38 points!) and even seemed entertained by our fickle support. This wasn’t much of an anecdote, but you had teams from Wisconsin and Kansas, so what did you expect?

No. 8 Butler
How they got here: By adhering to The Butler Way, which lately means winning extremely close games, often in improbable fashion, to put yourself two wins away from a second straight Final Four.

Given an 8 seed, the likelihood of surviving the first weekend seemed dismal, especially since opening round opponent Old Dominion was projected as another very dangerous team. But Matt Howard’s put-back at the buzzer lifted the Bulldogs to a 60-58 win over ODU, and in one of the strangest finishes you’ll ever see in a basketball game, Butler defeated top-seeded Pittsburgh 71-70. Shelvin Mack dropped 30 points in the game, a Butler Tournament record, hitting 7-of-12 three-pointers.

Why you should have seen it coming: Do you believe in Butler magic? I’ll admit, just before this year’s Tournament started I read Underdawgs, a book on Butler’s inspiring run to last year’s NCAA title game, and I still didn’t think the Bulldogs could knock off Pitt. Without Gordon Hayward, last season’s leading scorer and rebounder, it seemed this team just didn’t have enough firepower.

In early February, after a three-game losing streak in the Horizon and with no signature nonconference wins (though the win over Florida State looks pretty good now), Butler was 14-9 and in danger of missing the Tournament. That’s when the Bulldogs rattled off nine straight victories, entering the Dance as one of the hottest teams in the country.

Why they may not go much further: It’s silly to bet against the magic at this point, but Wisconsin is a team that will do a lot of the things Butler does, except better. The Badgers have big men that aren’t simply space eaters in the paint—they won’t be afraid to venture outside the lane with Howard. This one could go either way, as could Butler’s next game against BYU or Florida. Including these two Tourney wins, the Bulldogs have won six straight as an underdog, so either their magical roll will continue or their luck will finally run out.

Vegas anecdote: It seemed like I was the only person in the theater who backed Butler in the first round, which really shocked me. I understood Old Dominion was a very good team, but when Vegas made the Monarchs a two-point favorite I didn’t see the value. In Butler’s second game, I think everyone was too confused by the final seconds to worry about their particular bet.

No. 2 Florida
How they got here: By getting two huge games from 5’8” Erving Walker, the guard from Brooklyn with a knack for hitting big shots. Walker led Florida with 18 points, including four-of-six from deep, in an opening round rout. The Gators didn’t really need him against a woefully overmatched UC-Santa Barbara squad, winning 79-51. They sure relied on him against 7 seed UCLA though. He scored Florida’s last seven points—a three-pointer with 1:15 left to push the lead to four and four free throws to seal the deal. He finished with 21.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Gators were on the national radar in February, when they went on a six-game winning streak in the SEC, a run that included victories over four teams destined for the Big Dance. A blowout loss to Kentucky in the conference tournament final didn’t prevent Florida from getting a 2 seed, making it a safe bet to reach the Sweet 16.

Why they may not go much further: Are you going to bet against Jimmer? BYU is next up for the Gators and it certainly doesn’t help that Florida’s best perimeter defender, Kenny Boynton, sprained his ankle against UCLA, though he is expected to play. Keep in mind that it was BYU that eliminated Florida from last year’s Tournament (in double overtime). Wisconsin and Butler are experienced teams that would likely play Florida close to the final minute should the Gators advance.

Vegas anecdote: I was playing Pai Gow while watching the Florida-UCLA game, and the dealer continuously berated me for not playing the bonus. Whenever my hand failed to make three-of-a-kind or better, which was more often than not, she said nothing, but any time I made a good hand she would tap her finger inside the bonus betting circle and say, “Should’ve played bonus.” I’d like to thank Billy Donovan’s team for putting me in a good mood. Had Florida lost, I may not have been so patient with the critical dealer.

No. 3 BYU
How they got here: Jimmer. Jimmer. Jimmer. Jimmer. I could really write this for every section. It would be lazy, but accurate. Fredette (this is the last time I’ll use his last name, I promise) dropped 32 on Wofford (a 13 seed) and 34 on Gonzaga (an 11 seed). He wasn’t too efficient in the opener, an eight-point win, but converted 7-of-12 from downtown against the Zags in an 89-67 blowout.

Why you should have seen it coming: Coming off one of the biggest wins in program history against San Diego State, BYU lost Brandon Davies and then lost to New Mexico by 18. The Cougars regrouped, winning three in a row (including a win over New Mexico) and reaching the Mountain West tournament final. This didn’t quell all doubts, but it proved BYU was still a capable team. And when you have the nation’s leading scorer, you’re a threat to make a Tourney run.

It seems like Jimmer has just as easy a time doing this from 25 feet. (Credit: Lelavr)

Why they may not go much further: I really liked this team, so I was saddened by Davies’ suspension because I felt it ended BYU’s chances of a serious Tourney run. This team had a very legitimate shot at a Final Four, but without their lone inside presence I figured they could struggle to get through the opening weekend. The Cougs have done that, but you’ve got to assume Florida has learned from last year’s Tourney matchup, when Jimmer scored 37. There are teams in the MWC that play BYU multiple times a year and still have no clue how to slow Jimmer, but the Gators are a complete team that should be able to control the paint. Butler and Wisconsin have quality big men as well. No matter how it turns out for BYU, it will be fun to watch.

Vegas anecdote: BYU was an 8.5-point favorite in its opener against Wofford. The Cougars were up 11 with the ball and could just about run out the clock on the Terriers. BYU fans/bettors voiced their support, but then, for some reason, Jimmer hoisted a 30 footer, which missed everything. You could feel the tension rise in the theater as Wofford guard Cameron Rundles drove baseline but passed on a layup, opting to kick it out to teammate Terry Martin instead. Bettors screamed “Noooo!” as Martin released a three-pointer as time expired, and sure enough, buried it to make the margin eight and give Wofford the cover.

Final Four 2010: Duke, Michigan State, West Virginia, Butler

Shouldn’t we have seen this coming? I mean, it’s not like there’s a George Mason in this bunch. It’s been a wild Tournament with a lot of upsets, sure, but to call this year’s Final Four unpredictable, crazy, a fluke — now that’s taking it too far. You may not have seen Cornell reaching the Sweet 16, Northern Iowa beating Kansas, or Tennessee going to the regional final, but you should be ashamed of yourself for not having a perfect Final Four. Here’s why.

Duke
Do I really need to waste Internet ink on the Blue Devils? They were a one seed, they’d been to 14 Final Fours before this trip, and they get all the calls. Seriously though, do you know anyone who didn’t have Duke in at least the Elite Eight? The committee paved a very smooth road for Duke to reach the regional final, where it likely would be matched up with either Villanova or Baylor. It was the latter, and the Bears were a formidable foe. But come on, Baylor? This was not the team that was going to knock off mighty Duke. This was an obvious pick, so I’m sure you had it.

West Virginia
The Big East has been regarded as the top conference in college hoops the past few years. You had to expect one Big East team to reach Indianapolis, and why not the conference tournament champ? Like Duke, WVU had a fairly easy path to the regional final. As it turned out, it was even easier than most thought, as the Mountaineers faced a 15, 10, and 11 seed before toppling Kentucky.

The Wildcats are very talented, but also very young. WVU has its own star in Da’Sean Butler, and he’s an experienced senior. Upperclassmen top youngsters in March, didn’t you know that? Sure you did, so you probably had WVU, too.

Michigan State
What’s that you say? That you had Duke and West Virginia, but the left side of the bracket was just too crazy? Wrong. How could you overlook a team that had gone to five Final Fours in the past 11 years? This is practically the same Spartan squad that danced all the way to the title game last season. Sure, the top three seeds getting bounced before Michigan State had to play them helped, but Tom Izzo would have found a way to get his team to the Final Four regardless.

I don’t want to hear about Kansas. Kansas always chokes; you should know this. Michigan State never chokes. Did you think you were going to go the entire Tournament without seeing Magic Johnson? Shame on you if you took any other team in the Midwest region, no matter how loaded it was.

Butler
OK, you convinced me about Michigan State, but you’re not going to tell me Butler was an obvious choice, too, you say. Guess what, bracket braniac, I am. Butler was a preseason top 10 team. Better yet, in the last poll before the Tournament, it was ranked eighth. The top seven teams all received one and two seeds. The Bulldogs, inexplicably, got a five seed.

But surely you recognized this was no typical five seed. While some of your friends foolishly took UTEP as an upset in the first round, you knew Butler, with all that Tournament experience, would coast to the Sweet 16. That’s where top-seeded Syracuse awaited, a team that seemed too big, too athletic, too good for a lowly Horizon League team, at least to some. But not to you. You valued defense, team chemistry, timely three-point shooting, and a desire to “go home,” to Indianapolis, that propelled this team to the Final Four.

There you have it. Four different paths, but all of them equally predictable: a perennial favorite, the best of the best, the top Tourney coach, and the hometown kids. Shame on you for whiffing on all of them, yet alone one of them.

My Final Four? Baylor, Kentucky, Kansas, and BYU.

ESPN BracketBuster Preview: MAAC Outlook

Siena vs. Butler. Old Dominion vs. Northern Iowa. Marist vs. Cal Irvine? OK, so the name of ESPN’s event — BracketBusters — might be misleading. After all, Marist and Cal Irvine are both last place teams and won’t be appearing in, yet alone busting, any brackets this postseason. But the purpose of the event — to match up schools from outside the power conferences — is fun and meaningful.

Mid-major schools like Siena and Butler that have proven they can beat power conference teams have trouble scheduling home games. The BracketBuster event allows these schools to get an extra home game to boost their resumes. Plus, 22 lucky schools get to play on national television. As I alluded to before, most of the 38 non-televised match-ups won’t live up to the event’s name, but it’s still fun to see the conference compete against each other.

All 10 MAAC schools will be competing in this year’s event; five at home and five on the road. It’s very difficult to project how these games will shake out since these conferences don’t often face each other. But after my success predicting the outcome of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, I will attempt to do just that for the MAAC’s BracketBuster games.

Friday, Feb.19
9:00 pm, ESPNU: William & Mary at Iona
This is clearly the second-best match-up involving a MAAC team and probably the third best of the entire event. William & Mary has already made noise in their non-conferenceschedule, beating top-tier ACC schools Wake Forest and Maryland on the road. The Tribe sit at third in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Iona, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise in the MAAC. The Gaels are also 11-5 in conference and will also be looking for their 20th win. Iona and W&M have three common opponents this season. Both beat Hampton. Both lost at Connecticut — W&M by nine and Iona by 19. The Tribe won by five at Manhattan, a team Iona beat by three on the road but lost to at home.

These results of those games don’t tell us much. One thing is for sure: W&M has proven it can win on the road, even in tough environments. The Hynes Athletic Center should be just that, as fans from smaller schools always get rowdy for televised games.

This is a tough one, and I’m admittedly biased, but playing at home gives the Gaels the slight edge in my book. Also, it’s Senior Night, and although I don’t have any numbers to back this up, I imagine teams have a pretty good winning percentage on Senior Night. Iona wins.

Saturday, Feb. 20
11:00 am, ESPN2: Siena at No. 13 Butler
This is the marquee match-up of the event. When the pairings were announced, it looked like we might have the two longest winning streaks in the nation going head-to-head. Siena’s 15-game winning streak was snapped last week, however. The Saints bounced back against Canisius though, and now head to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse to face Butler and its nation’s best 16-game win streak.

Both of these teams are dominating their respective conference. The Bulldogs are a perfect 17-0 in the Horizon and have lost only four games all season. While the Saints have stars in Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore, and Edwin Ubiles, Butler counters with Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, and Gordon Hayward. The latter Bulldogs are sophomores, while the aforementioned Saints are all seniors. Siena has the edge in experience, but Butler is no stranger to big games.

Butler has lost its last two home BracketBuster games, but is 12-0 at Hinkle this season and is 41-3 at home over the past three seasons. The Bulldogs haven’t been seriously challenged in a while, but you could say the same thing about Siena. This is a great measuring-stick game for both teams. Once again, I’ll give the edge to the home team. Butler wins a very close game.

1:00 pm: New Hampshire at Loyola (MD)
These teams have some common opponents but that’s not going to help us here, as they both beat Vermont, Marist, and UMBC, all by similar amounts. Their records, both in conference and overall, are also very similar. Both have lost two in a row. So…who knows? I’m going with the home team. Loyola wins a low-scoring affair.

2:00 pm: Fairfield at Vermont
Another MAAC vs. America East match-up. Vermont lost by 13 at Loyola (MD), a team Fairfield beat twice. Vermont won at Marist by 10, while Fairfield won there by 20. So this is a small sample size of a formula that doesn’t tell you much to begin with, but the Stags have a slight edge here. The MAAC and the America East are similar, so I’m tempted to give the edge to the home team, but I like this Fairfield team. The Stags have overcome adversity this year, and I expect them to pull off the small upset in this one.

2:00 pm: Towson at Manhattan
Both teams are struggling, each winning only four games in conference so far and sitting well below .500. Towon was blown out by fellow CAA member Hofstra twice, while Manhattan only lost by five in a really ugly game. The Jaspers also hung with William & Mary; although the Tigers haven’t faced the Tribe yet, I imagine they’ll lose handily. Manhattan’s record is a bit misleading because of all the tough, close losses. I don’t think this will be that close. Manhattan wins by at least eight.

2:00 pm: Buffalo at Saint Peter’s
MAC vs. MAAC. Buffalo took on two MAAC schools this year, dropping a close game to Canisius and winning at Niagara. But Saint Peter’s has beaten both those teams twice. Again, it’s so hard to compare these seemingly equal teams from different conferences, but I saw St. Pete’s in person and liked what I saw. The Peacocks will prevail.

4:00 pm: Rider at Hofstra
Rider has been disappointing this season. I keep waiting for the Broncs to break out, and although Ryan Thompson is on fire in his last six games, Rider is only 8-8 in the MAAC. Thompson is handful, but Hofstra already beat a better MAAC team in Fairfield. I can’t pick every MAAC team. I’m going with Hofstra.

7:00 pm: James Madison at Canisius
Another CAA vs. MAAC contest, and like Manhattan, I’m going with the MAAC in this one. James Madison is 4-12 in conference and 2-12 overall on the road. Canisius, with its strong guard play, should win fairly easily.

7:00 pm: Marist at Cal Irvine
I’m sorry, Marist fans, but I won’t spend much time on this one. Both teams are pretty bad, so I’ll go with the home team — the one that doesn’t have to travel across the country. Cal Irvine wins.

7:00 pm: Niagara at Milwaukee
I don’t want to give excuses before the games are even played, but it’s hard to compare these teams. Like the Siena-Butler match-up, this is MAAC vs. Horizon. Niagara has been impressive lately, winning four of its last five, including a victory over Siena. Milwaukee played earlier tonight, which doesn’t help their chances on Saturday. However, I smell a minor upset here. When in doubt, go with the home team. Milwaukee wins a very close game.

To recap, I predict the MAAC to post an impressive 6-4 record in its BracketBuster games. I like Iona, Loyola, Fairfield, Manhattan, Saint Peter’s, and Canisius to earn victories for the MAAC, though I’m more confident in my overall record prediction being correct than in my game-by-game picks. We’ll find out how I did by the end of Saturday. Please feel free to post your predictions in the comments section.

Butler Basketball: Gordon Hayward an All-America Candidate

I’ve already raved about John Wall. Evan Turner is out due to an injury, but when healthy he is one of the most complete players in the country. Luke Harangody is putting up monster numbers and Wesley Johnson is wowing NBA scouts. But if I were filling out my All-America ballot today I’d certainly have to include Butler’s Gordon Hayward.

The 6’8, 200 lb. sophomore is averaging 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs. Hayward is an extremely versatile player who can take his man off the dribble and shoot the three effectively (he’s 11-of-22 his last three games; he shot 44% from deep last season). He’s a good passer and can defend multiple positions.

Last season, as a freshman, Hayward was at his best against the best. Here is his point production in the following nationally-televised games: 25 at No. 21 Ohio State; 19 at No. 12 Xavier; 27 at Davidson; 12 vs. No. 20 LSU. That’s an average of 20.5 points per game, well above his season average of 13.1. Butler went 2-2 in those games, losing to OSU and LSU by three and four points, respectively.

It’s been more of the same this year for Hayward. Butler struggled early on against a brutal schedule, but not because of their star small forward. He kept them in the game against No. 15 Georgetown, scoring 24 in a five-point defeat, Butler’s third straight loss to a ranked team. Perhaps sensing his team needed him more than ever, Hayward delivered his second 24-point output in as many games, this time in a Butler win against No. 15 Ohio State.  He followed that up with 22 and a career-high 14 boards, including a clutch rebound and the game-winning buzzer beater in a wild win against Xavier on Saturday.

His impressive marks of 20.2 and 10.4 against top competition (the ranked teams, plus Xavier) are starting to resemble his overall season averages — in other words, Hayward is becoming a consistently productive star. Once the Horizon League’s best kept secret — it was Hayward’s teammate, junior Matt Howard, who was winning all the awards — the college basketball world is starting to become more familiar with the lanky kid from Brownsburg, Indiana. Hayward was on the preseason watch list for both the Naismith Trophy and the Wooden Award. The United States Basketball Writers Association (of which I am a member) gave him the Player of the Week award last week. In other words, the secret is out.

Hayward doesn’t jump out of the gym, lacks elite quickness, and doesn’t play with a lot of flash. But he does have a nose for the basketball and great court awareness. These qualities are obviously starting to get noticed by NBA GMs. On ESPN.com, Hayward is listed as the 18th best pro prospect.

Hayward strikes me as a four-year college player. He could still develop more physically, and mid-majors aren’t known for players leaving early. If he does stay in school and continues to develop, Hayward could someday win one of those awards for which he is a preseason nominee. If he keeps up his play of late, he could win some serious hardware this season.