Posted by Matt Jones
In the history of the NCAA tournament, there are very few accomplishments that match what Butler pulled off this weekend in New Orleans. With their victory over Florida, Butler is now going to back to back Final Fours, an utterly unbelievable feat for a program that lives outside of the BCS power conferences.
When Brad Stevens’s group made it to the national championship game last season, it was considered by most to be an exceptional Cinderella run, brought about by a unique combination of a NBA lottery pick leader, outstanding clutch play and a run of good fortune. But now, after four consecutive thrilling wins that will send Butler to Houston for another go-around on college basketball’s biggest stage, such simplistic reasoning will no longer suffice.
With the win on Saturday, Butler basketball has shown that it deserves to be seen as one of the top ten current basketball programs in the country. It is only one of those types of programs that can lose a player like Gordon Hayward to the NBA draft and then come back and contend immediately again. Teams like Kentucky, Duke, UNC and Kansas are used to seeing superstars leave, and then immediately reloading. Now we must put Butler in that same group.
This year’s Butler group is now realistically on the brink of winning a national championship. Matt Howard’s last second win over Old Dominion got the tournament off to a rocking start and showcased just how clutch a performer the senior has been throughout the course of his career. The upset over Pittsburgh produced the most shocking ending of March, and removed the biggest obstacle to a second Final Four run.
And then in New Orleans, the Bulldogs came to play, but not as the upstart from a small conference seeking to shock the world. Rather, they were the cool, calm and collected team that had been there before and could handle the moment. The Bulldogs handled their business from the opening tap in the Sweet 16 against Wisconsin and then were the more poised team down the stretch against a veteran Florida team who they rattled in the final minutes.
Butler now goes to Houston with a chance to win the whole thing. It will be favored against VCU in the national semifinal and in a one game scenario against either Kentucky or UCONN, the Bulldogs would once again have a chance to shock the world. What Butler has accomplished is unheard of in modern college basketball and it may not yet be over.
Regional MVP: Shelvin Mack: Since Butler turned around its performance midway through the season, Shelvin Mack has been the driving force in big moments. Saturday’s final versus Florida was no different, as Mack scored 27 points and hit a number of crucial shots. Mack may be the most clutch performer left in the NCAA tournament and he showcased in New Orleans that he could be the most underrated perimeter player in America.
C Vernon Macklin, Florida
F Matt Howard, Butler
F Alex Tyus, Florida
G Shelvin Mack, Butler
G Kenny Boyton, Florida
Game to remember: Butler 71, Pittsburgh 70. This is a game that will be remembered for a long time and could define these programs for years to come. Butler’s win allows the Bulldogs to lay claim to one of the great accomplishments in recent college basketball history. While Pittsburgh’s loss means that Jamie Dixon will not yet be able to get rid of the stigma of having never made a Final Four. Add to it, the bizarre late foul calls and the Nasir Robinson pain of costing his team the game late, and this will be one of the 2-3 most remembered games of the tournament.
Game to forget: Wisconsin 72, Belmont 58. It happens every year. One trendy upset pick comes into the tournament and lays a total egg, making everyone who talked about them all week look silly. This year’s team was Belmont, who most thought had earned respect through its demolition of the Atlantic Sun and thus respect was given before playing against a slow team from the Big Ten. But that slow team controlled tempo, used its dominating size and the game was a dud. Never listen to the 4-13 pick that is trendy...it rarely works.
Biggest disappointment: St. John’s. It was a great regular season for Steve Lavin’s club and a late injury did temper expectations. But after the senior-laden squad did so well, the Johnnies fans wanted more than simply a harsh defeat to Gonzaga. Lavin will have St. John’s back sooner, rather than later. But a better showing this year was expected.
Best individual performance in a losing effort: They don’t get much better than the show Jacob Pullen put on for Kansas State in its 70-65 loss to Wisconsin. Pullen willed his team to the tournament towards the end of the season and then showcased all of that same desire in his two games. 38 points against Wisconsin was part of one of the great tournament performances so far, win or lose.
Most memorable moments:
- Matt Howard makes a great putback at the buzzer to get March Madness off to a great start. We knew the tournament was back in session.
- Michigan State put forth an amazing comeback, down 25 late, but coming back and only losing by two. It was a miserable performance up until the end, but Tom Izzo teams can never totally be counted out.
- Any time Jimmer Fredette plays, it is worth watching. He ran out of magic against Florida, but in the first two games, his deep threes were quite a sight.
- The late fouls by Shelvin Mack and Nasir Robinson in the Pitt-Butler game won’t soon be forgotten and ignited a debate on the roll of officials at the end of games.
- How can a team like Gonzaga look so dominant against St. John’s and then so terrible against BYU? Every game is different.
- Billy Donovan coached well all tournament...until the end. I still do not know what the offensive gameplan was at the end of regulation or in overtime versus Butler.
Team to watch out for next year: This was a senior-laden bracket, with most of the best teams losing most of their best players. But there were some signs that UCLA could get out of its recent funk. Josh Smith is fun to watch and is able to do some amazing things in the paint. If Ben Howland can keep everyone around, the Bruins will join Arizona at the top of the Pac 10 once again next year.