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NCAA Final 4 Recap - (8) Butler 70, (11) Virginia Commonwealth 62

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Sometimes, a really nuanced or clever angle offers the best way to capture a multi-dimensional story in a major sporting event. On other occasions, the smartest approach is to state a salient fact with unvarnished plainness. That’s the way to view the first national semifinal at the 2011 Final Four.

On an electric evening at Reliant Stadium in Houston, the only thing that needed to be said after 40 minutes of fierce combat was this: For the second straight season, the Butler Bulldogs earned an appearance in the national championship game of college basketball. That solitary sentence says so much about a team, a coach, and a program that have set an impossibly high standard for all mid-majors in college hoops. In game that matched two schools from the same weight (and economic) class in their sport, it was the veteran outfit with proven experience that carried the day. While the Virginia Commonwealth Rams earned a massive amount of respect in a well-played game, Butler earned a second chance to accomplish what it couldn’t last year against Duke: Win on the first Monday night of the month of April.

Yes, it’s impossible to put into words what Butler University’s men’s basketball team has just achieved against one of its mid-major brothers on Saturday. Perhaps the best way to view the journey made by coach Brad Stevens and his players is to point out some of the schools that haven’t even made one Final Four or national title game. Gonzaga hasn’t made a single Final Four despite its decade-plus run of NCAA Tournament-grade consistency. Xavier hasn’t made a Final Four over the course of a similar period of Atlantic 10 dominance. Temple, under John Chaney in the 1980s and 1990s, never made a single Final Four. Some power conference schools – Northwestern and Nebraska – have never even won a single NCAA Tournament game, and they have basketball budgets that dwarf what Butler devotes to basketball. Yet, here are the Bulldogs from the Horizon League, playing the very last game of the college basketball season for the second year in a row. While the nation’s Division I college basketball coaches – there are almost 350 of them – gather at the Final Four site to watch Monday’s title game, Stevens will once again be one of the only two coaches actually plying his trade on the sidelines.

The enormity of that reality is staggering. If anyone thought that Butler’s 2010 run to the championship game was a feel-good joyride or a one-off anomaly, that claim just can’t hold water now. The fact that the Bulldogs repeated their 2010 journey – with the chance to take an even bigger step on Monday night – is a feat that defies all description. Considering the fact that Butler has done this without former superstar Gordon Hayward, now in the NBA, only trebles the magnitude of this team’s 2011 season.

How did Butler make sure that Virginia Commonwealth did not become the first No. 11 seed to win a Final Four semifinal (after LSU failed in 1986 and George Mason was stopped in 2006)?

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The answer was simple: The Bulldogs established what they needed to when the game was on the line. In a confrontation between VCU’s open-court offense and Butler’s rugged defense, the Bulldogs had the final say. Virginia Commonwealth forward Jamie Skeen – with 27 points – was the best NBA prospect on the floor, but Butler’s team philosophy, predicated on gang rebounding and defensive discipline, thwarted the Rams and made VCU the latest Bulldog victim in an NCAA Tournament contest. The double-digit seed from the Colonial Athletic Association had no answer for the roster whose all-hands-on-deck approach continues to win games with uncanny consistency.

Lots of different players emerged for Butler on a night when Skeen and his VCU teammate, Bradford Burgess (15 points), were the only Rams to score more than four points. There was Khyle Marshall grabbing eight rebounds and playing high-level defense near the rim. There was Zach Hahn scoring eight straight Butler points midway through the second half when the Bulldogs needed a boost. There was Ronald Nored playing tenacious defense and affecting the trajectory of the game without scoring a single point. Guard Shawn Vanzant nailed a huge three-pointer with 3:04 left to give Butler a 61-54 lead and provide the Bulldogs with a cushion that came in handy when Skeen drilled a trey just moments later. Lots of role players emerged for Butler in marked contrast to VCU.

Beyond the “glue guys,” though, stood the big dogs on the Bulldogs, the men who finished off the Rams and their own credentialed young-man coach, Shaka Smart.

Shelvin Mack reaffirmed his status as a first-rate sniper. The meal-ticket scorer on this Butler team hit several cold-blooded threes in transition and owned the best long-distance shot in this game. His teammates definitely helped him, but it was Mack who led BU to a 54-47 lead entering the final eight-plus minutes of regulation, thereby allowing the higher seed in this mid-major matchup to play with a working margin entering the race to the finish line. Mack finished with a team-high 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting, a phenomenal performance on such a grand stage.

Mack was supported by Matt Howard, the high-IQ big man who always finds a way to make his presence felt near the rim as a defender and rebounder. It was Howard who produced the play that sealed VCU’s fate, the rebound-and-stickback with 57 seconds left that pushed Butler’s lead to 63-57 and stripped the Rams of any remaining leverage. After that bucket, VCU could no longer play straight-up defense or score two-point baskets at the offensive end of the floor. Howard added four foul shots in the final 47 seconds of regulation to make sure the Rams did not get back off the mat. Howard’s 17 points and eight rebounds didn’t begin to touch on the extent of his exploits on Saturday.

It wasn’t just another Saturday for Butler basketball, and yet, in a very real sense, that’s exactly what this national semifinal was. If Butler can play just another typical Butler game on Monday night, an already-remarkable achievement – two straight national championship games – will become that much bigger.

Try to wrap your mind around that possibility. It’s now very real indeed, deep in the heart of Texas.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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