HOUSTON -- One budding coaching genius had to lose, just didn't know it would be this easy.
You'll read a lot about how Butler hoosiered its way to a second successive national championship game. You will wonder how a team that lost at Youngstown State -- and hasn't lost since -- will be playing for it all. Feel free to be amazed at how Matt Howard has remade himself into an NBA prospect.
But for the love of Wooden, VCU's Shaka Smart got a lot less smart down the stretch in Butler's 70-62 national semifinal victory against the Rams. Before we throw a bone to the Bulldogs, let's be fair. The reputation of one of the hottest rising coaches in the country just dropped a few notches.
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Butler was doing its usual death-by-slow-asphyxiation on another opponent leading by seven with less than 10 minutes left. But there was a break with 9:22 left when VCU's Jamie Skeen was fouled by Howard while laying it in. Howard went to the bench with his fourth foul. The best scoring threat VCU had on Saturday night, and many nights -- the 6-foot-9 Skeen -- was coming off a 26-point, 10-rebound, no-foul performance against Kansas. Kansas.
So, how hard could it be to beat Butler with the game on the line this time?
That's the mistake we've all made these past two seasons. Just when you think you've got these Bulldogs, they get off the leash. It was VCU's chance to strike and it didn't.
By the time Howard re-entered with 4:40 left, Skeen had touched the ball basically once offensively during that stretch. And didn't score. Blame it on Butler's typical defensive method. Blame it on the been-there-shocked-that Bulldogs doing what they've done for those two seasons. Or put a smidge of the blame on Smart.
"Make no mistake about it, this one really stings," he said.
Now he knows how these games can turn on little things like forgetting to get your best offensive threat -- at least on Saturday -- some touches. It stings because the game was there to be had, like most are -- or so it seems against Butler in the tournament. The eight-point win was its largest margin of victory in five tournament games for the Bulldogs. It stings because Skeen (27 points, six rebounds) had become about the only thing going for the Rams for long stretches while dodging foul trouble. The Wake Forest transfer had 10 of his team's 23 field goals, three of their eight 3s. The Rams struggled to score without him. They had a chance with him.
"We called some stuff for Jamie," Smart said. "He got 17 shots for the game. He got seven free throws. Could he have gotten more? Sure."
After an amazing six-game run through five major-conference teams, the Rams weren't ready for the fellow mid-majors from Nap Town. With Howard out, the lead stayed at five over the next 4:42. If Skeen wasn't being doubled at that point, he was being bothered enough by a 6-11, 240-pound force named Andrew Smith.
"We weren't great guarding Skeen all night," Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
Until then, and that's the genius of Butler basketball under the boy king. Either VCU forgot about Skeen or Butler wouldn't allow an entry pass. Maybe both. It turned out Butler's way, and the basketball world is turned upside down -- again.
"I never root for a team that just now beat me," Skeen said. "I'm not going to be rooting for them."
He might be the only one. Stevens called it his team's best defensive set of the year with 2½ minutes left -- until Skeen was fouled nailing a three-pointer. But some mojo was left. Skeen missed the free throw. Butler stayed up by four.
Good things happen to good teams. This one, if you haven't heard, is legit. Butler extended the nation's longest winning streak to 14.
"That was an unbelievable [defensive] possession," Stevens said. "We were switching, rotating, talking, there on the catch. It was really, really special to watch."
And just like that it was over for VCU. The Rams never looked comfortable. The team that Jay Bilas said didn't deserve to be in the bracket lurched out of it, another Butler victim. The Rams launched seven threes in the first five minutes, applying their press after makes. Then it went 8½ minutes in the first and second halves without shooting one.
The Rams had gotten this far, in part, by shooting the lights out from the arc. It went back to being average against Butler (8 of 22). The Rams who had survived being outrebounded in tournament by an average of four a game, got smoked on the boards, 48-32.
Butler was reliant in Reliant right down to the mascot. Mascot Blue II stood resolute amid the celebration almost looking like he was willing to take a charge.
A couple of players popped their jerseys. They waited patiently for their CBS postgame interview on the court. This stuff is getting old for Butler. What was left unsaid is that Stevens, officially now the smartest man in the room -- court, stadium, whatever -- at age 34.
"I told them I'm not doing the flying chest bump until we get through the weekend," Stevens said, "in part because I'm getting older and it hurt the last time."
So now the Bulldogs get the ultimate mulligan. They get a chance to become arguably the first true mid-major to win it all. The first team from the state of Indiana to go to back-to-back Final Fours is also the first team from the Hoosier state to play in back-to-back championship games. Perhaps somewhere Bobby Knight is stewing, and that is a good thing.
There is room for only one coaching genius in Indiana at the moment.