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How they got here: Butler could, should win it all

by | CBSSports.com
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You over the fact Butler's in this position? I hope not; the accomplishment deserves continued amazement.

We've appropriately moved the predominant conversation this week to VCU's incredible run, but the fact the Bulldogs are back in the Final Four after coming within a heave of winning the thing last year ... it still melts my brain. Brad Stevens has done something at Butler that's unrivaled in the modern era. Heck, it's unrivaled in any era. I don't think a mid-major coach outside of Stevens, in the next 50 years, will reach Final Fours in back-to-back seasons. It might happen once. Maybe.

We know about the Bulldogs being the first mid-major team to make it to back-to-back Final Fours since UNLV in '90-'91, but that's certainly no comparison. And prior to that? San Francisco in the 50s. The Dons had some dude named Bill Russell on the squad during those days. Hardly comparable.

So until the games begin, I'll be over here, still massaging my jaw, which remains agape at the fact that this team's gone 10-1 in the Big Bracket over the past two seasons.

Why they'll win it: Stevens' coaching. Everything you've heard about the man -- save for the lame, stale jokes about his age -- is true. He is that great of a coach. The Bulldogs were once a 6-5 team in a mediocre Horizon League. There are no NBA players on this roster. It seemed like a hangover type of season. Then, to turn it around and continue win games the "Butler Way," it's beyond compare. This group is content to win its games 62-59, 58-55, 65-50, and let you hang around the whole time. Then it gets to crunch time, and so long as Shelvin Mack isn't committing a dumb foul, the odds are in Butler's favor. The team has proven tough and methodic in late-game situations.

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Why they won't: Stevens said it himself: experience is overrated. Last year, remember, Butler had the convenience of getting the Final Four in its backyard, in Indianapolis. Players were attending classes the day of the national championship game. Now, a truly new experience. The team had to hop on a plane just like every other, stay in a hotel, just like every other, and it gets the full foreign experience of a Final Four.

If you'd like another reason, I'll use athleticism, absolutely. Butler is the slowest, "weakest" team of the four remaining. It hasn't stopped it from winning before, but on the big stage, sometimes the big run means so much. Kentucky, VCU and Connecticut can and will run. Butler's seldom comfortable at such speeds.

Players to watch: Mack's certainly one of them. He's the leader of this team, a guard with a hard nose who seems to play unfazed. Matt Howard -- the guy who I call Kramer on a basketball court (in the most complimentary of ways) -- is the guy you really feel good for. Howard had a bad 2009-10 largely due to his inability to stay out of foul trouble; Howard was a much more effective player two, three years ago. Now, he's returned to form, in some sorts, and has curbed his tendency to thwack. He and Andrew Smith make for a frontcourt that, for the most part, hasn't gotten the due it probably deserves.

Best off the bench: Freshman Khyle Marshall has an offensive rating of 109.1, meaning he scores 109 points per 100 Butler possessions. For a bench player, that's fantastic. He's the fourth-most proficient scorer Butler has. The Bulldogs lack a lot of value below Marshall.

Soaring: Butler sort of qualifies overall, yes? The group hasn't lost since Feb. 3, when it suffered its worst defeat of the season, against Youngstown State. This positively streaky play stems from Mack's ability all over the floor.

Slumping: Ronald Nored is a tremendously smart player and huge asset on defense -- but he's been virtually invisible on offense. Nored's not looked to for points, but it could be of use here against VCU. In an offensive way, he's more than slumping, to be kind.

Notable stat: 4.5: The percentage of opponent possessions where Butler blocks a shot; 8.9 percent: How frequently Butler steals the ball away. A key component to remember: Butler plays slow (64.6 possessions per game, 270th in the nation) but it's not because of a swarming, rough defense. The pace comes from Butler's methodic offense and relatively strong ability to avoid turnovers.

Last time in the Final Four: The one and only time was just last year. I wonder how frequently Stevens and the coaching staff will use 2010 as a reference, a teaching tool -- or if they'll try to keep it out of the players' minds as much as possible.

Last time won a national championship: N/A.

All-time starting five: Butler doesn't have too much individual player history, despite playing in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. If this team wins a national title (seriously, think about that: Butler, national champions of men's Division I basketball), it'll be this group: Howard, Mack and Smith, along with defensive specialist Nored and savvy senior Shawn Vanzant.

Final thought: Butler gets a matchup it can handle in VCU. No guarantee to win, but if VCU's shooting diverts back to the mean, the Bulldogs will more than cope. Howard staying out of foul trouble is always a key for this team, but Mack is the most vital. My thoughts also drift toward the likelihood this team will win a national title. I think it can and, well, almost should do it this year. Things set up well for this team. The closer we get to the weekend, the more I want to believe we're going to have a barrier-breaking national champion in this sport. Butler: winning it all. We flirted with the thought last year; does this group get the job done this weekend, changing the narrative from an inspirational, fun story to, "Remember how Butler almost won two straight national titles? If only Hayward's shot had gone in."

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