Editors note: This story was updated March 30 at 12:52 a.m.
Video by Elyssa Garfinkle
Story by Steven Peek
The Butler men’s basketball team is headed back to the Final Four despite a January and February full of experts spouting opinions to the contrary.
The doubters had their reasons.
First, Gordon Hayward left. Then, senior Willie Veasley couldn’t be replaced. And surely losses at Louisville, Xavier and a three-game losing streak that culminated at Youngstown State had proven the Bulldogs (27-9) were no longer among the nation’s elite.
But Butler has again done what they seem to do so well—prove others wrong.
Four NCAA tournament wins and millions of busted brackets later, the No. 8 seed Butler has punched a ticket to Houston, where they will play the No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth Rams.
“It’s a tribute to the Butler system,” sophomore center Andrew Smith said. “When you lose a great player like Gordon Hayward, people are going to underestimate you, but we’ve been able to turn it around.”
It took a full team effort to get Butler back to the Final Four. Roles had to be realigned and new obstacles had to be overcome.
Senior forward Matt Howard and junior guard Shelvin Mack have been at the front of the pack.
While many nationwide have continued to focus on Howard as a ‘turtleneck sock-wearing,’ nerdy Ichabod Crane,” he has continued doing what he loves to do most—win basketball games with his “brothers.”
Howard is averaging 16.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game during the 2011 NCAA tournament. He also had game-winning shots in the Bulldogs’ second- and third-round wins.
Mack has been right with Howard in the upper eschelons of tournament statistics. His 21.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game during the March tournament run earned him the Southeast Region MVP.
This season, Smith has given some room for Mack and now Howard to work on the perimeter.
A 6-foot-11-inch graduate of local Covenant Christian High School, Smith has successfully played the post position in February and March. He doesn’t always blow up the stat sheet, but he does provide size against large opponents and allows teammates to play to their strengths.
Defense has been a huge part of the Bulldogs’ return to the Final Four with senior guard Shawn Vanzant and junior guard Ronald Nored being the keys to that effort.
Their ability to guard the perimeter and corral quick point guards, like Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Florida’s Erving Walker, have forced deep, difficult shots from opponents and allowed other parts of the scouting report to be executed.
Bench play has also been key in this year’s deep tournament run. When Smith got into foul trouble, Mack rolled an ankle or a spark was needed, the bench was there.
Junior forward Garrett Butcher, senior guard Zach Hahn, freshman guard Chrishawn Hopkins and freshman forward Khyle Marshall have been the support system in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.
Each had a performance that got the Bulldogs through tough times.
Butcher defended the middle against Old Dominion. Hahn kept things close against Florida in the first half.
Hopkins dished out a no-look assist and then made a 3-pointer in the second half against Florida. Marshall grabbed seven offensive rebounds against the Gators.
The bulk of the work has been done by Howard, Mack, Smith and Vanzant, but a handful of other Bulldogs have each had their part in overcoming a wave in the NCAA tournament’s open sea.
And of course, Butler head coach Brad Stevens has been the glue to bring the pieces together.
“I think he’s one of the best in-game coaches in country,” Nored said. “He does a good job of analyzing teams by numbers first and then getting a feel for how they play.
“He shows us that the little details add up to the big picture.”
Rams: The New “Giant Killers”
Somehow, Stevens, 34, won’t be the youngest head coach in the game.
Shaka Smart, 33, leads the Rams—the “hottest” team in the country and yet still a team that barely made it into the field of 68.
They share more than youth, though. Both have a strong passion for the game, according to Hahn.
The Rams (28-11) have a five-game winning streak, but all of those wins are in the NCAA tournament and against “bigger,” or more major, conferences.
Consider the prestige of the Rams’ victims during this year’s tournament: No. 11 seed Southern California (Pacific-10), No. 6 seed Georgetown (Big East), No. 3 seed Purdue (Big Ten), No. 10 seed Florida State (ACC) and No. 1 seed Kansas (Big 12).
Butler is not from a major conference, but that shouldn’t temper VCU’s ability to play as the underdog. No experts expected the Rams to be where they are now, much like none of them picked Butler to be winner of the Southeast Region.
Stevens called humility a core principle of the Butler program, and that should keep the Bulldogs from overlooking a team that others have in March.
The five days prior to the national semifinal may be what Stevens and the Bulldogs need to prepare for the otherwise surprising Rams.
The matchup epitomizes March Madness and the seemingly changing landscape of college men’s basketball, one in which conference affiliation, media exposure and training facilities aren’t determining factors of how deep a team can go in the tournament.
One of these two unlikely foes—Butler or VCU—will be playing in the national championship game Monday night in Houston against a team from a major conference (Kentucky or Connecticut).
The Butler-VCU national semifinal game tips Saturday at 6:09 p.m.