HOUSTON -- VCU's path to the Final Four is unlike anything we've seen, primarily because the Rams have absolutely obliterated their opponents. When fellow Colonial Athletics team George Mason got to the Final Four as an 11-seed five years ago, it was only just squeezing out wins against higher-ranked opponents. The Rams downright shocked Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas in its run to Houston.
You may be saying, "OK, great, but what does that have to do with Butler?" Here's the thing: Brad Stevens' team also has just eked out wins to get to the Final Four.
Everyone knows about the back-to-back hacking blunder against No. 1 Pitt in the third round, but Butler also needed a game-winner from Matt Howard two days prior to get past No. 9 Old Dominion. Then there was the 61-54 win over Wisconsin -- really, the closest Butler has gotten to a blowout -- and finally, the 74-71 overtime victory against No. 2 Florida. So Butler's won close.
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Eventually the scales balance out -- you play with fire that much and, well, you know what happens. But where else can we see how Butler will lose? Let's look around. I'm immediately drawn to fouls. Specifically, Howard and his foul trouble. Those who watched Butler's run to the title game last year know how foul trouble plagued the Bulldogs, though it hasn't been such a problem this year. When you get to the tournament, and the Final Four, specifically, these problems do sometimes pop up. Foul trouble is to be expected, but Butler can't have Howard get hit with two whistles in the first five minutes of the game or pick up three fouls before halftime. They'll need him to match up with Jamie Skeen.
Butler could be in trouble if it faces Kentucky in the title game because the Bulldogs are one of the worst shot-blocking teams in the country. Kentucky is the fourth-tallest team in college basketball. Connecticut ranks 35th, which is further back. Andrew Smith and Howard are fine down low, but they won't intimidate John Calipari's bigs.
Also, don't look for the current 13-game winning streak as a reason Butler shouldn't lose, either. Last year, it was riding 25 straight W's before getting beaten by Duke in the championship game. So what that Butler hasn't lost since Feb. 3? The 62-60 loss to Youngstown State, a team that finished 9-21, signaled a sea change for the better in Butler's season, and it's shed bad habits. Doesn't mean old ones won't resurface. Since late January and into February, the Bulldogs have been trying to eliminate bad habits. In a majority of their losses, say the players, they were getting driven on with ease, with help coming too late. It was a ripple effect. If the collapse was late in the paint, opponents would get more chances for jumpers, particularly 3-pointers.
"We used to give up 60 points in a game. Early on, we were giving up 60 points in a half," Shelvin Mack said.
Butler operates like a solid, well-built, multi-faceted machine. But it only works if the pieces are perfectly in sync. Not every team is like that; the other three teams in Houston certainly don't. If Ronald Nored isn't a factor on defense, that's a big problem. Nored is on the floor because he's a leader and a stalwart. If a team's putting up more than 70 points on Butler, it falls on the entire Bulldogs machinery, but Nored is a main cog.
The thing to remember: Butler isn't the defensive team you might think. The Bulldogs are the 61st-best tempo-adjusted team in the country, according to KenPom.com. They allow 95.6 points per 100 possessions, which is fine, but not elite. Last season, Butler allowed 86.2 points per 100 possessions, which was fifth-best in the nation.
Point is, it's not all about the defense. Butler doesn't win and lose based on its defensive play. It's a part of it, but it's not the be-all, end-all. The Bulldogs are top-20 in the country at controlling the ball and not turning it over. Just 17.2 percent of the time does Stevens' team get charitable. You know how it's so easy to emphasize not turning the ball over? With Butler, the emphasis is warranted because it doesn't rank better nationally in any tempo-free category than that one. Stevens, who is tempo-free savvy, is no doubt keyed into this.
With fewer possessions per game (Butler averages 64.6 to Connecticut's 6.57, Kentucky's 66 and VCU's 66.1), Butler has more value in what it does with the ball. Those numbers above may seem small, but over the course of a season, the chasm between 64.6 possessions per game and 66.1 is fairly significant.
Control possessions, control the ball and Butler's where it wants to be: in a close game playing under its terms.