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.