Over the next two days, we will be taking a team-by-team look at the Final Four.
Record: 32-4, 18-0 (Horizon)
Star: Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack have been the 'guys' for Butler all season long. Hayward seems destined to be a first round pick when his Butler career is all said and done, as he is a 6'9" guard that can do it all. Mack is your prototypical power point guard, a 6'3" rock that isn't afraid to take and make a big shot.
(photo credit: Pictures Depot)
Unheralded Hero: Ronald Nored, and to a lesser extent Willie Veasley as well, is the guy that sets the tone for Butler defensively. One of the best perimeter defenders in the country, Nored spends his time bodying up an opponent's best back court player. For a team that relies as heavily on tough half court defense as Butler does, Nored is as important to their success as either Hayward or Mack. Overall, Butler has a very good group of role players. It is a group of guys that know what they mean to this team, embrace their role, and understand their limitations.
How they got here: Butler probably has the most impressive path to the Final Four. In the first round, Shelvin Mack scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half as Butler overcame a 33-27 halftime deficit as they beat UTEP 77-59. Murray State gave the Bulldogs more of a fight in the second round, but Butler made a late run to take the lead and forced a turnover on the Racer's final possession as they held on for a 54-52 win. In the Sweet 16, Butler knocked off #1 seed Syracuse, forcing the Orange into a slow start and using a 10-0 run in the final five minutes to hold on for a 63-59 win. Against Kansas State in the Elite 8, the Bulldogs shut down the Wildcat's talented back court for much of the game, dominating the glass against a bigger, more athletic team and again using a late surge to win the game.
Three reasons they can win it all:
- Defense: Butler is the kind of team you hate to play. They aren't trying to turn you over offensively. They don't overwhelm you with their athleticism. Everything they do on the defensive end is designed to take you out rhythm; to keep you from getting where you want to go offensively. That's why they are giving up just 56.5 ppg in the tournament. The Bulldogs can do it in a variety of ways, tailoring their defense to your strengths offensively. For example, Kansas State runs an offense heavy with ball screens, so Butler jumped every ball screen with their post defender. Butler is a well-prepared, well-coached team on this end of the floor, and they are going to make running offensive sets a nightmare. Ronald Nored's ability to make life a living hell for Korie Lucious may be the determining factor in this game.
- Poise: You would probably never believe that this team has just one senior on it. This team just doesn't get rattled. In each of their last three games, the Bulldogs have had an opponent make a late run on them to take the lead -- Syracuse did it twice -- and on all three occasions, Butler was able to answer and win the game. That is impressive.
- The comforts of home: I'm not buying the whole 'home court advantage' angle that's being played. Michigan State, West Virginia, and Duke all travel well and have much bigger fan bases. The game isn't played in Hinkle. And Butler playing in Indianapolis isn't exactly Kentucky playing in Lexington. That said, the advantage Butler is going to have playing at home is that they get to sleep at home. They get to be on a normal schedule and have a normal routine. For anyone that has traveled -- be it for work, for a sporting event, etc. -- they can attest that living out of a hotel room is never ideal.
Three reasons they won't win:
- Final Four experience: Bobby Huggins has been here before. So has Coach K and Tom Izzo. They know what to expect -- the media crush and the increased attention -- and they know how to handle it. Brad Stevens has never been here. In fact, the biggest stage his teams have even played on was probably last weekends Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. That is going to pale in comparison to what he and his players face this week.
- Matt Howard's fouls: Its been a problem all season long. Howard just always seems to be in some sort of foul trouble. And don't be fooled, Howard is a very important piece to this puzzle. He rebounds the ball, he defends, and he's good for about four or five buckets on the offensive end. He is one of the only players on this roster that is capable of banging on the block with the biggest of the bigs, assuming he is able to stay on the court.
- Shooting: Threes. As we all know, it is the great equalizer. Generally when talking about a mid-major advancing or a cinderella making a run through the tournament, it has something to do with a great shooting performance out of the underdog. Butler just isn't a great shooting team this season. A large part of that has been Gordon Hayward's drop off -- he's down to just 29.5% on the season after shooting 44.8% as a freshman. Granted, this team doesn't rely on their shooting -- its defense and the ability to make plays down the stretch. But the Bulldogs don't get many offensive rebounds, and thus won't get many second chances, especially against a team like Michigan State. When they get opportunities, they need to capitalize.