Story by Steven Peek
Photos by Maria Porter
The Butler men’s basketball team seemed comfortable and focused today on the eve of their national semifinal game against No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth.
The No. 8 seed Bulldogs (27-9) spent their 50-minute practice in rhythm and unfazed by the bright lights or open space of Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
Some of that was due to the experience from last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis Lucas Oil Stadium. Some is also due to a schedule similar to last weekend’s in New Orleans, where the Bulldogs also practiced at a nearby university prior to the on-site practice.
But senior forward Matt Howard said performance on the hardwood is more important than the space around it or the routine prior to suiting up.
“At some point, it’s about execution and really doesn’t matter if you’ve been here before or not,” he said. “You’re still going to have to make plays and execute the game plan.”
Still, senior guard Shawn Vanzant said the Bulldogs’ tournament appearances the last two years have been a blessing.
“A lot of people have played Division I basketball and didn’t get a chance to make the tournament, let alone make it to the Final Four two years in a row,” he said. “But I always felt we had a chance to be special.
“I always thought we could make it this far.”
Senior guard Zach Hahn agreed.
“I used to tell Matt [Howard], who I have always been good friends with and played AAU ball with, ‘Come to Butler and we’ll do something special,’” Hahn said.
Butler’s opponent is perhaps even more special—in terms of history—than making it to consecutive Final Fours.
The Rams (28-11) finished with an 11-7 record in the Colonial Athletic Association and were one of the last four teams given an at-large bid into the field of 68.
Both considered mid-majors, Butler and VCU will be playing for the right to play No. 3 seed Connecticut or No. 4 seed Kentucky—both schools from one of the country’s six major conferences.
The difference between the two teams lies within their strengths and tempos.
VCU is strong in transition and along the perimeter, thanks to senior guard Joey Rodriguez. Butler is stronger in a half-court offense with methodical play calling, thanks to the poise of junior guard Shelvin Mack.
VCU thrives on energetic play, exemplified by VCU head coach Shaka Smart taking charges and diving for loose balls during practice. Butler thrives on calculations and playing the percentages, symbolized by the in-game teamwork of Butler’s coaching staff.
Butler head coach Brad Stevens kept his glasses securely on during the open practice, taking no charges and leaving the physical activity to the players and managerial staff.
Stevens continues to assure everyone that he’s not been sought out for any eye wear endorsements and that wearing glasses is a matter of necessity.
“You’re always somewhat superstitious as a coach, but the reason I’m wearing the glasses is so I can see,” Stevens said. “I’ve found I’m a better coach when I can see than when I can’t.”
The Bulldogs and Rams face off in the first national semifinal, which is set to tip at 6:09 p.m. ET.