RTC Final Four Snapshots: Butler BulldogsPosted by zhayes9 on March 28th, 2011
Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. We begin the dissection with the Butler Bulldogs and their incredible run to back-to-back Final Fours.
Crucial Tourney Moments: Unlike last season when the Bulldogs pulled away from UTEP, Syracuse and Kansas State late in games to advance to the Final Four, each step towards Houston this season has been decided by one or two crucial plays Butler turns to their advantage. There’s Shawn Vanzant throwing the ball off the backboard that eventually resulted in a Matt Howard layup just before the horn to beat Old Dominion. There’s Gilbert Brown missing the second of two free throws in a tie game that opened the door for Nasir Robinson’s brain cramp for the annals. How about Howard corralling an offensive rebound to finally put to bed the Badgers after a ferocious rally or Butler’s little-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins finding Howard on a key assist and draining a huge three from the left wing when it appeared Florida was about to pull away? These types of winning plays have defined Butler in their two unfathomable March runs.
Advantage Area: Both Butler and VCU are strikingly similar when it comes to efficiency ratings, but where Butler stands out if the game is close is their ball screen action with Shelvin Mack and his proficiency in one-on-one situations late in the shot clock. While VCU’s point guard Joey Rodriguez is more of a distributor and their wings are superior in catch-and-shoot situations, Mack has the ability to operate in “take ‘em” situations when the offensive set has crumbled, the shot clock is heading towards single digits and Butler badly needs a basket. While Mack has struggled percentage-wise with his shot this season, he carried the Bulldogs in their upset of Pitt and his one-on-one prowess was never better exemplified than in the waning second of Butler’s Elite Eight win over Florida when a pick-and-roll resulted in a switch and Mack pulled up for a dagger three. VCU doesn’t have one designated player to match Mack basket-for-basket late in a one or two possession contest. Butler is also extremely physical defensively and their ball screen defense was a huge reason for their win over ball-screen heavy Florida.
Potential Downfall: While Butler didn’t turn the ball over with great abundance all year, they never had to test their mettle against a full court press as capable as VCU’s during their conference season or NCAA Tournament run. The Rams will trot out their 1-2-1-1 press in an attempt to speed the tempo and force turnovers after made shots and, if the final five minutes of Butler’s Sweet 16 near-collapse against Wisconsin was any indication, Brad Stevens needs to spend some practice time this week gearing up for VCU’s full court pressure. It’ll be imperative for Mack and fellow guards Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored to focus on ball security and not allow the Rams to dictate tempo. Their press befuddled Kansas at times on Sunday and that built-up fatigue was clearly evident in KU’s jump shooting woes.
X-Factor: Ronald Nored is doing it again. Similar to last March when the lockdown perimeter defender negated Andy Rautins, Jacob Pullen and Durrell Summers, Nored’s defensive brilliance has once again been a huge factor against explosive guards Ashton Gibbs (seven shot attempts), Jordan Taylor (6-19 FG) and Erving Walker (1-10 FG). Nored may be a liability on the other end, and the workings of Howard and Mack are equally invaluable, but the defensive pest’s incredible ability to stick like glue to the best guards in the country the last two NCAA Tournament has been an irreplaceable asset for Brad Stevens. A starter last season, Nored has unselfishly agreed to come off the bench in order for Butler to begin the game with more of a scoring lineup on the floor. The task against VCU for Nored will likely be Rodriguez in an attempt to thwart the Rams’ offensive flow before it gets going. A drool-worthy matchup with Kemba Walker may await in the national title.
Key Semifinal Matchup: The matchup between versatile big men Jamie Skeen of VCU and Matt Howard of Butler is certainly one to highlight. Howard may not compile the raw numbers to stand out, but he’s constantly making game-deciding plays down the stretch, whether it’s corralling a 50-50 ball, taking a momentum-swinging charge or hitting a dagger three on a pick-and-pop with Mack. The challenge for Howard is that Skeen is more than adept at operating around the perimeter and is superior athletically. The winningest player in Butler history has done a marvelous job reversing his foul trouble demons from a season ago, but the tremendously talented Skeen, a Wake Forest transfer, could pose the biggest challenge for Howard yet in the NCAA Tournament.
Crunch Time Performer: Howard more often than not finds himself in opportune position to making game-deciding plays, but it’s Mack whom Stevens will rely on for big shots at the end of games. Mack is making as many big plays as any guard remaining in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 30 in the win over Pitt on an astounding seven threes and posting 27 in the win over Florida including barrages both early and late in that contest. If Mack needs any extra motivation to reach back-to-back title games, a meeting with Kentucky could await on Monday night. Mack’s hometown? Lexington, Kentucky.
Experience Level: Experience is where Butler has an edge over the other three teams in the Final Four. Kentucky plays three freshmen in their six-man rotation and their other three veterans have no experience beyond the Elite Eight. Connecticut is comprised of mostly youngsters, although Walker has compiled previous time on this grand stage in 2009. VCU obviously has never been this far. While the Kentucky and Connecticut runs have quieted those who say experience is crucial in March, having gone through everything the Final Four brings – from constant media attention to shooting in football stadiums to game preparation in a possible Saturday to Monday quick swing – could come in handy for Stevens and Butler.
Final Forecast: I’ve grown tired of picking against Butler and then being proved horribly wrong. I picked the Bulldogs to lose in the first round to UTEP last season and in almost every step along the way to their national title game loss to Duke. I failed to learn my lesson and picked Old Dominion to bounce Butler in the first round this year and anticipated their run concluding in every subsequent round. It says here Butler controls tempo and barely edges VCU in a nail-biter before falling in the national championship for the second straight season.