Butler: This march a little less maddening
HOUSTON – They are the lone repeat participants in the Final Four, the mid-major team that came a halfcourt heave from shocking the world and winning the 2010 NCAA championship.
Eighth-seeded Butler is surprisingly back on college basketball’s biggest stage playing opposite to this year’s most unlikely addition to the national semifinals – No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth – on Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
The Bulldogs always-cool coach Brad Stevens couldn’t have looked any more comfortable in addressing the media on Thursday in preparation for the next milestone in school history.
Stevens and his team have been here and done this. Will their Final Four experience pay dividends as they try to be the first team from a non-power conference to claim the national championship since UNLV in 1990?
“What it does is it allows you to help prepare your week,” Stevens said. “I don’t think it has any impact on the game. [VCU coach] Shaka [Smart] and their coaching staff are really smart. They are going to figure out how to prepare their week as well.
“The experience does help us plan our film sessions and when to do those and understand what’s all coming with all our obligations. So hopefully that is something we can build off of.”
There are two big differences this time around for Stevens’ team. First, star swingman Gordon Hayward left school early and is now playing for the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Hayward, who averaged a team-leading 15.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and just missed that desperation shot in the title game against Duke, has been backfilled in the lineup by sophomore Andrew Smith (8.8 points, 5.4 rebounds).
“You don’t replace Gordon Hayward,” Stevens noted.
Second, Butler is playing in the semifinals in Houston, 1,021 miles from campus in Indianapolis. Last year, the Bulldogs were just five miles from school at Lucas Oil Stadium. They slept in their dorm rooms, not hotels. They will have less fans in the stands this weekend, but potentially fewer distractions.
“Last year some of us attended class on open practice Friday,” junior guard Shelvin Mack said. “We had a lot of family and friends trying to come by and see us. There aren’t those distractions this year. We can just concentrate on the game, do our job and enjoy it a lot more.”
Butler’s path to the Final Four this season has been markedly different than a year ago. In 2009-2010, the Bulldogs ran roughshod over the Horizon League, entering the NCAA tournament on a 20-game winning streak that they stretched to 25 games before they fell to the Blue Devils in the championship game.
In 2010-2011, Butler (27-9) got off to a rocky start, losing four of its first eight games and five games in conference play. But the Bulldogs righted things and are on a 13-game run heading into Saturday.
The main reasons for the surge are returnees Matt Howard and Mack. Howard, a senior forward, leads the team in points (16.7) and rebounds (7.7). He has become the defensive stopper, keying tournament upsets over second-seeded Florida and No.1 Pittsburgh. Mack is the second scoring option (15.9 points per game) and playmaker (3.6 assists per game).
For Butler to get at least as far as they did last year they’ll need those two to headline and get big contributions from Smith, junior guard Ronald Nored and senior guard Shawn Vanzant.
“I’ve got plenty of confidence for Shelvin to finish games off, for Matt to finish games,” Stevens said. “Zach Hahn has won a game on a last-second shot. Shawn Vanzant’s made winning plays. Ron Nored’s made plays. They all only care about one thing. They don’t care who makes the play, they care about trying to win. We’re blessed to have a group that understands that.”
Howard said the Bulldogs know that they can’t lose focus under the additional scrutiny that the Final Four brings. With practice sessions scarce there is no time to waste.
“We realize that we have limited time and when you do have time on the court you have to take full advantage of it and maximize it,” Howard said. “I think the biggest thing is it helps our coaches more than us. They know how to prepare and get us prepared.”
Stevens seems unfazed and ready for anything. He joked that he was considering retiring as a coach so he could serve as Smart – the white-hot coaching candidate’s – new agent.
Loose, poised and loaded with knowledge, these Bulldogs seem right at home.
Even in Texas.