The Butler and VCU men’s basketball teams are now in Houston, away from the fan-filled fervor of their communities.
That means the time at which either team’s historic NCAA tournament run will end is quickly approaching.
It also means the time for adjusting game plans is fading.
We’ve nailed down the advantages each team has in Saturday’s national semifinal game.
Experience: The Bulldogs have been in this situation before, finding ways to win and smashing the doubts of basketball fans everywhere. Guard and NBA rookie Gordon Hayward and forwards Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes are not on the roster this year, but new faces and new strategies have filled the voids they left.
Junior guard Ronald Nored, a starter last season, has become a dose of energy off the bench and a lockdown defender once on the hardwood. Some have compared his “Nored Island” to that of New York Jets’ cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Senior guard Zach Hahn joins Nored as a familiar face, and the size and athleticism of freshman forward Khyle Marshall has appeared in key moments this March.
Defense: Speaking of defense, Nored isn’t the only one able to play it. Senior guard Shawn Vanzant has been another strong defender on the perimeter, and the pair is only a microcosm of Butler’s team defense, which is second to none in preparation.
The Bulldogs are 9-1 this season when holding their opponents under 60 points, with the loss coming at Xavier on December 9 and two of the wins coming in the NCAA tournament.
VCU is averaging 74.0 points per game during the tournament, surpassing their regular season mark, but the Bulldogs are unlikely to allow such a mark to be scored against them on such a grand stage.
Butler’s weekend opponents in New Orleans were blessings in disguise. Both opponents—No. 4 seed Wisconsin and No. 2 seed Florida—had quick, savvy point guards, like VCU senior guard Joey Rodriguez, and Butler corralled them both to disrupt the offenses.
The Howard Factor: The senior forward Matt Howard had two game-winners in Butler’s first two NCAA tournament games, and also had 20 points and 12 rebounds against Wisconsin.
Former Oklahoma State point guard and current ESPN analyst Doug Gottleib called Howard the most valuable player in the tournament and the country for his ability to set screens, sprint back on defense and spread the Bulldog offense.
Coaching: As much attention as VCU head coach Shaka Smart is attracting, Brad Stevens still has the advantage. Stevens’ eyewear aside, he’s arguably the best coach out of a timeout in the country, and has been praised by analysts for his ability to constructively use personnel.
Momentum: The thing Smart’s been able to do best is use the “chip on the shoulder” mentality to build momentum throughout the postseason.
VCU’s five tournament wins have been by an average of 12.0 points per game. After defeating No. 11 seed Southern California and No. 6 seed Georgetown, the Rams’ momentum was undeniable in a 94-76 win over No. 3 seed Purdue.
The Trio: Rodriguez, senior forward Jamie Skeen and junior forward Bradford Burgess have been leading the Rams’ charge this March. Rodriguez, the dribble-drive leader on offense, is averaging 5.1 assists and 10.5 points per game this season. Skeen is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder at 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Burgess is no slouch, though, averaging 14.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
3-point Shooting: VCU has the leg up in a category Butler has historically been known for. During March, the Rams have been shooting 42.1 percent from behind the arc and the penetration of Rodriguez facilitates that cause.
Bench Depth: As much praise as Stevens gets for his use of personnel at key moments, Smart has found a way to win with a deep rotation of eight or nine players. Freshman forward Juvonte Reddic, senior guard Brandon Rozzell and junior forward Toby Veal have been the staples of bench play during the NCAA tournament, each seeing double-digit minutes regularly.
The Butler-VCU game tips at 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday.