The Road Ends Here, states the signs on the Reliant Center and around the city of Houston this weekend, so we think we’re in the right place. The unlikeliest of Final Fours will commence on Saturday evening, so it’s time for our game analysis and picks. Check back Monday morning for the final edition.
#8 Butler vs. #11 VCU – National Semifinal (at Houston, TX) – 6:09 pm ET on CBS.
The New Krzyzewski is Back in the Final Four.
Butler is back in the Final Four but what they see on the other side of the court may look familiar. VCU is playing Cinderella this season, the same shoes the Bulldogs filled last year in Indianapolis. The Rams have dismantled four of their five NCAA Tournament opponents during their improbable tournament run, including Kansas in their most recent game. Shaka Smart’s team has increased its level of play by a wide margin in this tournament and will look to “Shaka the World,” as one VCU t-shirt says, in Houston. As if they haven’t already. VCU is a team that didn’t even expect to be in the field, choosing not to watch the Selection Show three weeks ago. Yet here they are, two wins away from a national title with the national spotlight squarely on them. To get to Monday night and a date with either Connecticut or Kentucky, the Rams need to keep doing what they’ve been doing so well in this tournament: shoot the three, defend, and force turnovers. Remarkably, VCU has been outrebounded in four of their five NCAA Tournament games. USC was the only team that couldn’t pull down more boards than the Rams, a stunning fact given how far they’ve advanced. How have they done it? VCU has shot 43.8% from deep behind Bradford Burgess and company, held four of their five opponents under 40% shooting and recorded a +23 turnover margin (+4.6 per game). By contrast, Butler is in this position thanks to clutch plays by experienced players such as Shelvin Mack and a fantastic tactician on the sideline. Brad Stevens’ bunch has won four tournament games by a total of 13 points, three of them by six total points. To beat VCU, Butler must defend the three well and protect the basketball. They’ve done a nice job of that in the NCAAs thus far, allowing only 30.4% from deep in tournament play while committing 11 turnovers per game over the same stretch. That 30.4% mark against the three ball would rank #13 nationally if it were a season average, giving you a strong indication of just how well they’ve defended recently. As it is, Butler ranks #65 in three point defense at 32.4% on the season. Both clubs rely on the trey for a large portion of their offense so expect many deep shots to be launched. The key defensive matchup will be Butler’s Ronald Nored against VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez. Nored made it a habit of frustrating opposing guards in last year’s magical run to the title game and he’s doing it again this year. If Nored can get in Rodriguez’s grill and disrupt the flow of the VCU offense, open three-point looks may become harder to come by. Rodriguez averages 5.1 APG but the Rams could grind to a halt if he is locked up by Butler’s ace defender. It is unlikely that VCU will enjoy a significantly positive turnover margin against a Bulldogs team that protects the ball fairly well and even more unlikely that the Rams will outrebound Butler. Therefore, Nored may hold the key that opens the door for Butler to advance to their second consecutive championship game. VCU, specifically Burgess and Brandon Rozzell, has to keep making threes to have a chance to win this game. On the interior, Matt Howard and Jamie Skeen will battle it out. Skeen is more athletic but these forwards have similar games. They can score in the paint or from the perimeter but Howard is more physical. Skeen hasn’t shown the aggressiveness needed to battle junkyard dog players like Howard in the post at times this season, instead relying on his athleticism and finesse to overcome his opponents’ physicality. He must be able to bang with Howard and hopefully, for VCU’s sake, get him in early foul trouble. On paper this looks like a very close game. We don’t expect anything different but the edge has to go to Butler. Experience matters a lot when you get this deep into the tournament and the Bulldogs have obviously been here before. Given the way last year’s season ended for them, they are probably playing with a chip on their shoulder as well. Butler has all the motivation in the world to get to the title game while, subconsciously, VCU is just happy to have made it this far. By no means are we saying VCU doesn’t care about getting to Monday night (they do), but we’re worried about how they’ll react in a tight situation down the stretch of a close game with the eyes of the world focused on them. Butler has been through this drill last year and during the tournament this season, plus they have tough-as-nails players like Mack and Howard. Add in Stevens, the master strategist, and you have the recipe for success in a national semifinal. We wouldn’t be surprised if VCU wins, but we can’t pick against Butler here in what looks to be a favorable matchup for the Bulldogs.
The RTC Certified Pick: Butler.
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