The Other 26: Examining Butler & VCU’s Runs to the Final Four

Posted by rtmsf on April 2nd, 2011

Kevin Doyle is an RTC contributor.  Throughout the season, he has authored a column, The Other 26, which examines the teams from the non-power conferences and their impact on the game at a national level.  Today he attempts to tackle the questions of how Butler and VCU have crashed the party down in Houston.

First it was George Mason, and now it is their brethren Virginia Commonwealth in the Colonial Athletic and distant cousin Butler in the Horizon League. Not too far off in the distance are those pesky Davidson Wildcats who burst onto the national scene in 2006, nearly knocked off Maryland in 2007 with freshman sensation Stephen Curry, and just missed crashing the Final Four party with this lusty crew by just a game back in 2008.


Mason Set the Template in 2006

By my count, that is four different teams—one more not too far away either—from true Mid-Major conferences to reach the tasteful waters of the Final Four since 2006. Prior to 2006, one would have to search all the way back to 1998 to find a non-power league team—the Utah Utes—that reached this stage. The overriding question that not only myself, but many others in the college basketball world have is: How are these guys doing it? We can all elect to listen to the self-proclaimed “experts” on the subject who know all when it comes to college hoops, but then again didn’t one of them state in so many words that VCU “doesn’t pass the laugh test?” Now, I will not pretend to stand atop the highest of horses and preach what I believe several of the reasons are why Butler and Virginia Commonwealth have had a great deal of success in the 2011 edition of the world’s greatest postseason tournament, but I will rather merely provide a slew of reasons why Butler and Virginia Commonwealth will be squaring off against one another on Saturday evening instead of Kansas and Pittsburgh, or any of the other marquee names out there for that matter.

While watching Butler defeat Florida on Saturday and then VCU follow that up by downright shocking, and I’ll even argue embarrassing, Kansas the following day, I continued to wonder to myself: “How?” Surely it cannot be a question of talent because if all these games were played strictly played on paper each and every one of the preceding teams would have not made it out of the first weekend of games. Can it be attributed to coaching? Doubtful. While Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens have thrust themselves into two elite coaches in the game, at this stage in their careers are they better than the likes of Bill Self and Billy Donovan? Self has won a National Championship with Kansas, and Donovan won consecutive ones with Florida. One could make the argument that Butler and VCU simply have the moxie that other Tournament teams do not possess. But, can something so abstract as that notion really make for a compelling argument for each team’s run to the Final Four? Yeah, I didn’t buy that one either.

When trying to come to a definitive conclusion and draw parallels between each of the preceding team’s successes, I came to the realization that each team has to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. A common argument is that in order for a Mid-Major to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, shooting a high percentage from three, converting on their free throw opportunities, and limiting turnovers are all absolute musts. In order for this to happen, there unquestionably needs to be strong play at the point guard position, as well as several hot shooting guards and forwards on the wing. After reviewing the relevant statistics for the five Mid-Majors who have made deep runs in the Dance in recent years—George Mason (2006), Davidson (2008), Butler (2010-11), and VCU (2011)—it is apparent that succeeding in some of these categories is not pertinent to advancing to the next round.

The following statistics are reflective of the four games leading into the Final Four (VCU’s statistics included their opening round game against USC giving them five games):

I am a huge fan of numbers and statistics in sports—KenPom is probably one of my most visited sites during the college basketball season—but quite frankly I find these numbers to be of little use in this scenario. What the preceding stats reveal is that if a team can take one part of their game and execute it exceptionally well, they have the ability to make a Cinderella-like run in March. With that being said, I believe there is a whole lot more that needs to happen for such a run to transpire than merely shooting a high percentage from distance or taking care of the basketball while on offense. Let’s dig in.

As critical as the coaching, talent level, and the skill sets of a particular team are in advancing to the Final Four as a Mid-Major who ostensibly is at a disadvantage in virtually every department against their opponents in the Tournament, everything boils down to the matchups. You hear it all the time on Selection Sunday: “How do you guys match up with…”? It is quite possible that a team like George Mason, for instance, had a favorable match-up with Michigan State in the first round of the 2006 Tournament.

From top to bottom, the Spartans were the better team based on purely talent alone, but it would be silly to believe that these games are decided simply on talent. For Mason, they were fortunate enough to be matched up against a “name team” like the Spartans. While no doubt a solid team, Michigan State really struggled in the latter half of the season as they entered the Dance with a 4-6 record in their last 10 games. The allure of Tom Izzo’s brilliance in March and NBA prospect Shannon Brown running the show seemingly made Mason stark underdogs, but Jim Larranaga’s squad ate up a futile Spartan defense all day as they shot 59% from the field and 42% from distance.

Of course, it never hurts to get a bit lucky along the way. George Mason was fortunate enough to face Wichita State in the Sweet 16 rather than Tennessee, and after slipping by the Shockers they somehow managed to defeat the Connecticut Huskies. Now, I am not even going to try to convince you that George Mason had a favorable matchup against the Huskies or managed to exploit one of their weaknesses. UConn’s entire starting five that afternoon would go onto the NBA and their first big man off the bench—Jeff Adrien—is currently in the League as well.  At this point, however, the amount of confidence and moxie—a term I referenced earlier—that George Mason was playing with was unparalleled by any team left in the Tournament. Plus, they were playing with “house money” as no one expected them to advance this far. Maybe they would get by Michigan State in the opening round, but surely they would falter against North Carolina. Advancing to the Elite Eight against UConn was simply out of the question.

En route to the Final Four, George Mason had five components that I believe are integral for a Mid-Major to win four games over the span of those two fateful weekends:

  • Exceptional coaching
  • An experienced group of upperclassmen
  • An NBA caliber player or one of extraordinary talent
  • Fortuitous match-ups
  • Moxie

George Mason proved it could be done, Davidson nearly duplicated  the Patriots’ run two years later, and now half of this year’s Final Four is comprised of teams from the Colonial and the Horizon League. After briefly touching on how Mason accomplished the impressive feat that 341 Division 1 teams were unable to, it’s only logical to take a deeper look into Butler’s and VCU’s road to Houston.

First up, Shaka Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth Rams:

Pretty similar, huh? Both teams hail from the CAA, both received At-Large bids to the Tournament as an 11 seed, and both had the exact same path to the Final Four in terms of seeds beaten. History can no longer repeat itself, however, as George Mason lost to #3 Florida in the National Semifinals.  What has many scratching their collective heads when looking at this VCU team is their play prior to the NCAA Tournament. This was not a team that tore through their conference and seemed poised to make a deep run. In fact, they may have been fortunate just to receive an invitation to the Dance. In their last 11 games leading into the Tournament, VCU compiled a subpar 5-6 record and were nothing more than an above-average CAA team. It was very clear while watching this bunch play against Southern Cal in the “First Four” that they had a real chip on their shoulders and had something to prove. And boy, have they ever.


Smart's Coaching Befits His Name

Much of their success can be attributed to their three-point shooting—a recipe for any team of presumably less talent and skill to upset a top ranked opponent. In four of their five Tournament wins—USC, Georgetown, Florida State and Kansas—the Rams have connected on more shots from beyond the arc than inside. Against the Hoyas, they hit 18 shots from the field, but still managed to score 74 points. How? 12 of the 18 field goals were triples and 26 points came from the charity stripe. Against the Jayhawks, 12 of the 21 field goals were from downtown. It is such a cliché, but the three-point shot truly has become the great equalizer in the college game.

It is much more than just the three-point shot that has VCU on the brink of a National Championship. It starts up top with Shaka Smart—one of the hottest young coaches around—and trickles down to their senior point guard Joey Rodriguez. Just a quick tidbit on Smart—who has a very appropriate last name—before I touch on Rodriguez. Coming out of high school, Smart had the opportunity to take his abilities to Harvard, as well as some other Ivy League schools, but he elected to enroll in Kenyon College in Ohio instead. While having the aptitude to analyze masterpieces of William Shakespeare and breaking down even the most complex mathematical problems has ostensibly nothing to do with the game of basketball, Smart’s intelligence has clearly translated into his success as a head coach. An apt basketball mind coupled with a highly intelligent mind in many fields is a recipe for success.

Now, back to Rodriguez, the battery of the VCU team. The shooting of Brandon Rozzell (17-35 3PT) and Bradford Burgess (13-22 3PT) is why many believe the Rams have made it to this stage of the Tournament, but I would contend that without the steady play of Joey Rodriguez ,VCU would be watching the Final Four back in their dorm rooms in Richmond. Against Purdue, Florida State and Kansas—three of the best defensive teams in the country with the Seminoles being arguably the very best—Rodriguez was not phased one bit in taking care of the basketball and distributing it to the shooters. In their five Tournament games, he has dished out 38 assists to just 10 turnovers—nearly a 4:1 assist to turnover ratio.

By many reports, VCU is the talk of the town down there in Houston. And how could they not be? They are playing with the most confidence, swagger and moxie—you knew that term was coming out again—of arguably any of the four teams left. Yet, under the tutelage of Smart, the Rams are taking it all in stride and are down in Texas with one thought on their mind: Winning. According to a tweet from Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, when asked how he has been spending his time traveling, Jamie Skeen calmly responded: “On planes, I sleep. On buses, I sleep. I just … sleep.” Think Skeen is focused?

It was impressive enough that Butler made it all the way to the National Championship last year as a #5 seed, but to advance all the way to the Final Four again this year as a #8 seed without the services of lottery pick Gordon Hayward is truly remarkable. He has already outdueled the likes of Blaine Taylor, Jamie Dixon, Bo Ryan, and Billy Donovan—four of the best coaches the game has to offer—as it is becoming plainly obvious that mastermind Brad Stevens has entered elite  coaching status. It is quite an accomplishment for any team to reach two straight Final Fours, but for Stevens to lead Butler—out of the Horizon League—to consecutive appearances after  the loss of their best player in Hayward is something else. There is zero doubt that the Bulldogs have the “exceptional coaching” area of the NCAA Tournament covered, but what about the other factors?


March Experience as in Howard's Case is Meaningful

Of the four teams in Houston, Butler is far and away the most experienced bunch in terms of NCAA Tournament experience. Every contributing player on this year’s squad earned valuable experience in last year’s Dance and have witnessed the bright lights of the Final Four. Comparatively speaking, according to KenPom, UConn ranks 332nd in the nation in the experience category, while Kentucky is not much better at 312. Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have played like seasoned veterans ever since the Horizon League Tournament, and it has carried over to the NCAAs. As talented as a player may be, one cannot make-up for a dearth of experience. Fortunately for Butler, this has not been an issue this year.

This experience and simply “knowing how to win” is exhibited when scrutinizing Butler’s statistics in the first table. Connecting on just over 40% of their shots from the field, 30% of their threes, and having more turnovers than assists thus far is not all that impressive, but Brad Stevens’ club knows what it takes to win ballgames.  The “experience” argument only carries so much weight, and far superior talent will usually outweigh it. It sure is a good thing then that two of Butler’s most experienced players also happen to be legitimate NBA prospects as Howard and Mack have demonstrated the leadership qualities and wherewithal coupled with a near flawless shooting capability that NBA scouts have noticed. We have all seen what Kemba Walker has done with a youthful Husky group this year in Storrs; Howard and Mack have performed similar heroics throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Even after studying virtually every nuance of both Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, breaking down every game they have played in this year’s Tournament, and analyzed the makeup of each roster, I still find myself asking the same question I asked while watching each team’s Elite Eight victories: “How?” Sure, Butler may have been more experienced than Florida, and VCU was a more confident group with a steadier point guard than Kansas, but it is still difficult to fathom that the Bulldogs and Rams were the last teams remaining coming out of their respective regions. However, when observing how well Butler and VCU play with one another—as true collective units—it begins to make sense how a run through the NCAA Tournament is not so farfetched after all.

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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