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Final Four Preview: Butler

Thu, 04/01/2010 - 2:49am
Did you know that Butler plays in the same arena that the climactic scene in Hoosiers took place in?

Did you know that arena is in the same city as this year's Final Four?

Gordon HaywardGordon HaywardDid you know that the Bulldogs represent everything good with college basketball and America and really just in general everything good?

I'm sick of Butler. I'm not rooting for a team that was picked by many, myself included, as a top 15 team this year. I'm not buying any underdog story for a program that has won 117 games in the past four seasons and now gets a hometown advantage for the biggest game(s) in school history.

Maybe this means I hate happiness. Or maybe – and bare with me now – this Butler “fairy tale” was really just a matter of time.

I'm not going to attempt to tell you this was easy. I'm not going to tell you Brad Stevens simply picked up where his predecessors, Todd Lickliter and Thad Matta, left off.

Here's what I know: In 1992, no “low major” – defined as a team in a league unlikely to receive at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament – made the Sweet 16. The same was true in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Now, it wasn't unprecedented by any means. There was quite often one team that made the second weekend that could be dubbed “Cinderella,” but it's simply a matter of fact that those four years were barren.

You'll notice 1993 was not included in the list, as Western Kentucky, a program with a long tradition of excellence, slipped into the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed. Cinderella? Only in comparison to the rest of the field.

The Final Four was another animal unto itself. From 1980 through 2005, a span of 26 years, no low-major conference member made the Final Four. The closest was Utah in 1998, but that year, the WAC had three other teams in the tournament.

In 2006, George Mason shocked the world. Well, kind of. We were in an era when the Sweet 16 seemed to have a few low-major teams every single year. Eventually, a low-major was bound to break through. It was a world where Gonzaga was considered one of the 15-20 best teams every single year.

Only a matter of time.

That's what I think of when I see this Butler team in this Final Four. It was only a matter of time before a team like George Mason made the Final Four, but that team ended up getting blow away by Florida rather predictably. Then again, wasn't it only a matter of time before a team that stood a fighter's chance reached the last weekend?

Butler isn't George Mason. Butler is more like the Gonzaga team that never was. The Bulldogs have an established history of success. There was Barry Collier, then Matta for a year, then Lickliter and now Stevens.

HoosiersHoosiersCenter Matt Howard was a legitimate four-star recruit. Swingman Gordon Hayward will probably be a first-round pick. Point guard Shelvin Mack should be a good European or D-League prospect and defenders Willie Veasley and Ronald Nored can lock down most opponents.

Bobby Plump, the Milan High School star who was portrayed as Jimmy Chitwood in the classic hoops movie Hoosiers, has been a popular interview lately. The New York Times ran a story on Plump's thoughts about this Butler team.

“We had a 15.5-point winning margin,” Plump said. “The closest anyone came to us was eight points during the 1954 state championship run. We had talent, also. Everyone liked to portray us as an underdog. … We like that portrayal.” 

Butler probably enjoys it, too. The Bulldogs have won 24 straight games, a streak unmatched. No one is even close. Their average margin of victory is 10, and they hold advantages in nearly every category against opponents.

It's only a matter of time til one of these teams – count Xavier and Gonzaga as two others – wins a national title. With home-court advantage and a weak Final Four field, that time could be now.

Cinderella never had these kinds of odds.


Scouting the Bulldogs

Record: 32-4, 18-0 Horizon League
Coach: Brad Stevens (88-14 in three years, 5-2 in three NCAA Tournaments)
Last Final Four Appearance: Never
Distance to Indianapolis: Right down the street

Why they can win: More than anything, this team simply doesn't lose. The only teams in the country with better overall records are Kentucky and Kansas, and both are already eliminated. Hayward is a matchup problem for most teams, a 6-foot-8 rebound hog who can handle and pass like a guard. Nored and Veasley are the best pair of perimeter defenders in the country. They've got home-court advantage and a good chunk of the team is Indiana-bred, so the crowd should be heavily in the Bulldogs' favor. They dictate pace as well as any team in the country, a big advantage against teams that like to go out and run like Michigan State and Butler. And the Spartans, their first-round opponent, have needed minor miracles to get this far without point guard Kalin Lucas.

Why they won't win: Eventually, it's assumed, talent and experience will catch up to this team. Stevens has never even coached into the second weekend before this year, and Veasley is the only key contributor who was playing on the 2007 team that went to the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs will struggle to match up with Duke's size, should they meet the Blue Devils in the final. If their shots aren't falling, the Bulldogs will have a tough time keeping Michigan State from running on them Saturday. In three of their four losses this season, Butler was out-rebounded, and Michigan State, West Virginia and Duke all can dominate the boards. Howard has had issues with foul trouble all season, and he fouled out of three of the four losses, and in the other one (Clemson), he was saddled with four. In all four of Butler's losses the junior post has played 25 minutes or less, while he's played a much larger role in most of the team's biggest wins.

Top NBA prospect: Gordon Hayward is really Butler's only NBA prospect. The sophomore is smooth and building popularity among fans and scouts. He's shown great range on his jumper and excels on the coveted corner 3-pointer. But he's much more than a catch-and-shoot specialist. Hayward can create off the dribble and has draw some comparisons to Lamar Odom for his point-forward ability. He's not an athletic freak, but he's in great shape and should be able to keep pace with NBA small forwards. He's got perfect length and size for the position as well. The limiting factors are there, though. Hayward is a jack of all trades, master of none, as the phrase goes. He doesn't often take over games, and one of his biggest assets at the college level is rebounding. Suffice to say, it's doubtful he'll average eight rebounds per game in the NBA. There's also been some questions about his shooting ability. Even as he has a nice release and was a marksman last season, Hayward has made just 29.5 percent of his long bombs this year.

The X-Factor: Veasley is a mostly known commodity as a defender, but he is scoring and rebounding are a bit erratic. And that could be a problem for the Bulldogs. If (and lately, when) Howard gets into foul trouble, the Bulldogs need Veasley to step up and provide some inside strength. Murray State nearly beat Butler by limiting Howard to 18 minutes with four fouls. The Racers outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-20 and held Veasley without a rebound, while the senior shot 3 of 12 from the field. That type of performance simply isn't going to cut it against a better team, but it's a realistic possibility. With Howard out, Butler often uses a three guard rotation with Hayward and Veasley as the two forwards. Unless the 6-3 swingman can keep pace with much bigger opponents on Michigan State, his team will suffer on the boards again. And they may not be able to keep the pace down enough to slip by.

Also See:

Final Four Preview: Duke

Final Four Preview: West Virginia
Final Four Preview: Michigan State
Grandmama
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"And that could be a problem

"And that could be a problem for the Bulldogs." fragment

"And they may not be able to keep the pace down enough to slip by." fragment

"I'm sick of Butler. I'm not rooting for a team that was picked by many, myself included, as a top 15 team this year." who cares?? also don't need to be patting yourself on the back ala Barry Horowitz

Portugoose
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If "talent and experience

If "talent and experience will catch up to this team", then why was Butler a top-15 team to begin with? Butler is still a Cinderella, because it doesn't yet have the basketball pedigrees of the likes of Kansas and North Carolina to be able to recruit 5 and 4-star players or McDonald's All-Americans from all over the country. It'll be many years, if ever, before a in-state talent like Greg Oden commits to Butler.

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