Elite 8 Recap Southeast Regional - (8) Butler 74, (2) Florida 71 (OT)
Suddenly, George Mason doesn’t look so unique and Gonzaga doesn’t seem all that special. On one amazing afternoon, the world of college basketball outside the six power conferences confirmed its clear and unquestioned standard bearer. If you thought that Butler was a one-trick pony or a one-year feel-good story without a shelf life, you were wrong. If it was deemed to be incredibly difficult for a so-called “mid-major” program to make the Final Four in any one season, a member of college basketball’s economic lower class has now turned the trick in back-to-back campaigns.
Yes, the Butler Bulldogs are headed back to the Final Four. Yes, for a second consecutive year, the pride of the Horizon League is a regional final winner in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, at the end of yet another month of March, a team without a top-four regional seed or a power-conference identity has been able to hold a victory celebration whose intensity and joy are secondary only to the national title party thrown by one winner on the first Monday night of April.
For a team that has just done the unthinkable, however, it’s hard to express just how joyful this regional final celebration is going to be. Lacking the athletic budget of the big boys in its sport and on the verge of being relegated to the NIT a month and a half ago, the enormity of Butler’s accomplishment in 2011 is impossible to adequately explain.
However, one must try anyway.
The eighth-seeded Bulldogs overcame a double-digit second-half deficit to down second-seeded Florida in New Orleans Arena on Saturday. Shelvin Mack carried his club, scoring 27 points and providing the spark down the stretch to get the Bulldogs over the hump. For much of the day, it seemed as if the immense Gator height advantage in the paint would be too much for Butler to overcome. Florida big man Vernon Macklin dominated the interior, scoring 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Interestingly, Macklin had only one shot attempt in the final 15 minutes of the game – that was partly a product of the foul trouble he encountered, but it was also a product of Butler’s improved defense and increased attention to detail.
Florida had a chance to win the game in regulation, but Erving Walker’s three-pointer failed to put the Gators into the Final Four. Trailing by three points with the clock running under 10 seconds, Florida’s Kenny Boyton also came up empty from distance and Butler will take its caravan to the Final Four once again.
The Bulldogs won as they always do: With sheer guts and more late-game discipline than their opponent. Butler didn’t shoot well in this game. The Bulldogs hit just 9 of 33 triples (that’s a lot of launched shots) but outrebounded Florida on the offensive glass, 13 to 8. Butler won far more 50-50 balls thanks to the hustle of no-name role players like Khyle Marshall, Chishawn Hopkins, Ronald Nored and Andrew Smith. Though outsized, Butler worked relentlessly in the chase for loose balls, especially after Florida defenders such as Alex Tyus (14 points, 10 rebounds) blocked or altered shots. This was never more the case than in the final 15 seconds of overtime, as Butler’s Matt Howard earned a jump ball and – with the arrow pointing in the Bulldogs’ direction – was essentially able to create a three-point lead for his team, setting up Florida’s ensuing miss on the game’s final possession.
Butler minimized its shooting woes by earning additional possessions in this game – that’s the most succinct way to express how this barnburner was won against a Florida team that competed well but hoisted bad shots, as mentioned above, at the end of both regulation and overtime. The Bulldogs always manage to reduce their given gameday deficiencies by rising up in a different facet of competition. This is the modus operandi that has enabled BU coach Brad Stevens to reach his second Final Four at the age of 34, setting the young man on a career trajectory that, if continued, could make the bespectacled boy wonder the greatest coach of the next 30 years.
Florida coach Billy Donovan did outmaneuver Stevens, especially on defense, but the Florida bench boss will not make a fourth Final Four. Butler will make the trip to Houston instead, having avenged a bitter NCAA Tournament loss to Donovan’s second championship team in the 2007 edition of the Big Dance.
Just how improbable is this Butler Final Four repeat? It’s not just the mid-major angle; Butler was a team in crisis in February. The Bulldogs had lost to lowly Youngstown State and had fallen to the middle of the pack in the Horizon League. The NIT was likely unless the Bulldogs won the Horizon League Tournament. Somehow, Butler rebounded enough to get a first-round bye in the tournament and reach the semifinals. Emboldened by the urgency of their situation, the Bulldogs improved their level of play and eventually won the Horizon tournament in a road-game final at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Now, they’ve won something much bigger: The everlasting respect of a college basketball community that had thought a team’s moment in the sun was only going to amount to one year.
No, Butler and Brad Stevens are here to stay. It’s truly one of the greatest stories in the long history of college basketball.
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