Sunday, March 27, 2011

Butler Provides Hope and Light for All Mid Major Teams

When Gordon Hayward left for the NBA draft last year, many people, including yours truly thought Butler would still be a good team.  A team that would probably make the NCAA Tournament, but not quite have the success that they had last season when they were a Hayward three pointer away from winning the national title.  Still, another NCAA Tournament would be considered a success for one of the best mid major programs in the country.

Then the season started and the Bulldogs struggled at the outset.  The Bulldogs went 4-4 in their first eight games.  But in fairness, three of their four losses were to Louisville, Xavier and defending national champion Duke, three very successful teams this season.  But the Bulldogs would win the Diamond Head Classic defeating Florida State and Washington State along the way to win that tournament.

The Horizon League season started and despite a loss to Wisconsin Milwaukee, Butler stood at 5-1 in conference after a convincing 23 point win at Detroit.  Then the struggles truly began for the Bulldogs.  They would lose four of their next five games in conference.  Their last loss was to last place Youngstown State on February 3rd on Pixelvision Night at  I covered that game for the Mid Majority site (press play on the Cover It Live to see all the tweets from me covering the game).

The Penguins led most of the game until later in the second half.  The Bulldogs went on a 21-5 run to go up ten, 57-47 with 5:25 left.  I even tweeted that "Mack buries a three as well and #Butler now up 5 with 8:36 left. Clock may have struck midnight for #YSU."  But Youngstown State rallied using a 15-3 run to end the game with the upset victory 62-60.   The Bulldogs from a season ago would have never let that comeback happen.  The 2009-10 Bulldogs were very good at stepping on a team's neck once they had them down.

But perhaps the Youngstown State game was the wakeup call Butler needed.  They weren't playing the lock down defense that propelled them to the National Championship game.  I even wrote about that during the beginning of that aforementioned slump when they lost at Wright State in mid January.

Whatever Brad Stevens told his team after that loss to the Penguins, the Bulldogs responded.  Butler would not lose another conference game, winning seven regular season conference games.  Then they dominated the Horizon Tournament, defeating Cleveland State by eight, then crushing Wisconsin Milwaukee on their home court by sixteen to win the Horizon League title.  And they did it the Butler way, with suffocating defense as they only allowed an average of 58 points in those nine straight wins.

Then came the NCAA Tournament and even though they were an eight seed, they were considered by many an underdog against the ninth seed Old Dominion (and yes, I thought ODU was going to beat Butler).  The Monarchs had won the very competitive CAA Tournament and had knocked off Clemson, Richmond and Xavier, a team Butler had lost to during the season.  If that sounds familiar, Butler was considered an underdog by many in their first round NCAA Tournament game vs. UTEP last season, even though the Bulldogs were a five seed.

ODU and Butler went toe to toe for 40 minutes.  The Monarchs even rallied late from six points down to tie the game.  But in one of the most ironic moments of the NCAA Tournament, Butler won the game at the buzzer on a putback rebound by Matt Howard, which happened against the best rebounding margin team in the nation, ODU.

Then came the Shelvin Mack Attack against #1 seed Pittsburgh in the round of 32.  Mack went off on the Panthers for 30 points, hitting big shot after big shot.  And after Andrew Smith scored on layup from a pass by Shawn Vanzant, the Bulldogs seemingly had the game won with 2.4 seconds left.  Then came the inbounds pass, and Mack going for the ball, forced Pittsburgh's Gilbert Brown out of bounds.  A foul was correctly called. Brown hit the first free throw to tie the game, then missed the second.  Howard grabbed the rebound for the Bulldogs and was fouled by the Panthers' Nasir Robinson.  Howard hit the first free throw to win the game for Butler 71-70 in one of the most unreal games in NCAA Tournament history.

Butler was now in the Sweet Sixteen and would face #4 seed Wisconsin, a team that plays similarly to the Bulldogs.   The Badgers had a recent history of losing to mid major teams in the NCAA Tournament (Davidson 2008, Cornell 2010), and Butler continued that history.  The Bulldogs came out strong and dictated the pace of the game.  Butler was up nine at the half, then by as many as twenty in the second half, 47-27 as Wisconsin was 1 of 16 from the field to start the second half.  However, the Badgers rallied and cut the lead to four but the Bulldogs held on and defeated the Badgers 61-54.

So it was onto the final against the #2 seed, Florida.    The Gators went after Butler inside as Vernon Macklin dominated the Bulldogs in the first half, scoring 13 first half points.  But the Bulldogs stayed in thanks to Mack and Zack Hahn combining for five threes.  Butler was only down one, 33-32 at the half.

The second half saw Butler take the lead early due to Howard and Mack.  But Florida clamped down on defense and went on a 12-1 run as Macklin and Alex Tyus continued to do damage inside.  Meanwhile Butler couldn't score a basket during those six minutes.  The Bulldogs were shooting just 3 of 15 in the second half from the field and were down 51-40 with 9:25 left.

But as they had shown in the previous twelve games they had won in a row, Butler refused to quit and Brad Stevens made a brilliant "science lab" move (review Mid Majority's tweets from yesterday to understand) by inserting freshman Chrishawn Hopkins in the game.  It was Hopkins first minutes of the game and outside of a minute at the end of the Wisconsin game, his first real minutes of the NCAA Tournament.  Well, the mad scientist Stevens' experiment worked.  Hopkins keyed a 17-6 run with a three pointer, an assist and much needed energy.   When Mack hit a layup with two minutes left, the game was tied at 57.

Florida would retake the lead thanks to Macklin's dunk and one of two free throws.   But the Bulldogs who struggled most of the day from the line got two big free throws by Mack and Howard tied the game at 60 by hitting the first free throw.  Howard missed the second free throw.  Florida had a chance to win in regulation but instead of working the ball to Macklin for the win, Billy Donovan pulled out a late game play from Leonard Hamilton's playbook.  Erving Walker dribbled down the clock then missed a three to tie.

In the overtime, Butler slogged their way to the lead, hitting all seven of their free throws in the extra five minutes while Khyle Marshall had a huge three point play on a putback rebound.   With Butler up one, Florida had a chance to take the lead.  Again, instead of working it inside to Macklin, Kenny Boynton fired up a bad three point attempt and missed.  Howard grabbed the ball and was tied up.  Butler had the possession arrow, then Mack got fouled after he ran off some clock.  Mack's two free throws gave them a 74-71 lead.  Walker missed another three pointer and Ronald Nored fired the rebound down court to run out the clock.  Butler was back in the Final Four again for the second year in a row.

If you think about what Butler has accomplished, it's truly amazing.  A thirteen game winning streak.  Two straight Final Fours, nine wins in the NCAA Tournament.  When many thought Duke was going to be in the Final Four two years in a row, it was Butler instead that accomplished the feat.  And think about all the teams Butler beat along the way the past two seasons. Here they are listed below.

2010 - #12 UTEP, #13 Murray State, #1 Syracuse, #2 Kansas State, #5 Michigan State
2011 - #9 ODU, #1 Pittsburgh, #4 Wisconsin, #2 Florida

The Bulldogs beat six teams with a #5 seed or higher the last two years in the tournament.  They accomplished this with defense, great coaching, hustle and yes, talent.   Anyone watching can see Shelvin Mack is a legitimate star guard.  Matt Howard is a terrific, relentless, old school garbage pail forward who now has added a three point shot to his arsenal.  Shawn Vanzant is a very good defender and quick on the drive.  And Khyle Marshall is a very talented freshman.

Butler has proven that mid major teams that have talent and are all in together on the system they play, can play and beat Power Six conference teams.  And that has been the case since 2006, since, yes Jerry Beach, George Mason.  But in 2006, it was not just Mason making the Final Four.  Wichita State and Bradley also made the Sweet 16 in 2006.  In 2007 Butler made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion Florida (REVENGE!).  In 2008, Davidson made it to the Elite Eight and were a Steph Curry three away from knocking off Kansas to go to the Final Four.  In 2009, if you consider Gonzaga and Xavier mid majors, then both made the Sweet 16 in that tournament.  In 2010, there was not just Butler, but St Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell (and you can throw Xavier in if you want) all made the Sweet 16.   Richmond made the Sweet Sixteen this season.

And of course, this NCAA Tournament is not just Butler, but there is VCU as well.  Due to the new 68 team format, VCU is the first team to win four games to make it to the Elite Eight.  They knocked off PAC-10 member USC, then #6 Big East member Georgetown, then #3 Big Ten member Purdue and finally #10 ACC member Florida State (who finished third in the ACC in the regular season).

Like all of the mid major teams mentioned above, VCU and Butler got to where they are by beating elite competition.  And lest you think that mid major teams don't have talent, obviously Curry was a first round pick two years ago.  There was also first round picks Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders of VCU and of course Hayward as well.

Kenneth Faried, whose block ensured Morehead State's upset win over Louisville, is considered by Chad Ford as the fifteenth best player on his NBA draft board.   In fact, Faried is the top player in John Holllinger's Player Efficiency Ratings.  The number six player in those ratings, Hofstra's Charles Jenkins who led Hofstra to a third place finish in the CAA (VCU finished fourth in the CAA), was named Third Team All American by the Sporting News.  Jenkins is #46 on Ford's rankings and is considered a late first to second round pick for the NBA Draft.

So there are talented teams and talented individuals on mid major teams.  The Power Six conferences and their players usually dominate the spotlight and media coverage during the regular season.  It just sometimes takes the NCAA Tournament to shine a "tiny light" on the mid major teams that in some cases are just as good and have players just as talented as the Power Six.   And thus, a little Grace Potter and the Nocturnals was appropriate for today.

Enjoy the final two Elite Games today.

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