HOUSTON—Even after a 70-62 Final Four semifinal victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday night that wasn’t in much doubt over the final 10 minutes, Butler coach Brad Stevens insisted on playing the underdog.
“A lot of good fortune,” he said of the reasons for his cuddly Bulldogs’ return trip to Monday night’s NCAA title game.
And he’s not entirely wrong. Butler had to win its Horizon League tournament to ensure its return to March Madness this season. Then it had to win its first four NCAA games by a total of 13 points, including going to overtime to outlast Florida in the Southeast Regional title game.
But good fortune isn’t the biggest reason the Bulldogs are back and better than ever as they prepare to face the Connecticut-Kentucky winner on Monday.
Good players, very good players, are the No. 1 reason that Butler may well be No. 1 by the time the Reliant Stadium loudspeakers begin blaring “One Shining Moment” at Tuesday’s dawn.
Players such as Shelvin Mack, who finished with a team-high 24 points, including 5-of-6 on 3-pointers. That’s the same Mack who grew up in Lexington, Ky., home of the Kentucky Wildcats. But Big Blue didn’t want him, so he went to Butler, a decision that has left many in the Commonwealth crying a big blue hoo ever since.
All Mack did against the Rams was score 10 straight points during a crucial point in the second half to carry the Bulldogs from a one-point lead to a seven-point cushion they mostly held the rest of the way.
Then there’s Matt Howard, the senior post player with more arm and knee pads than most linebackers but with the touch of a pastry chef. A year ago Howard missed five of eight field goals, and committed four fouls in the championship game loss to Duke.
On Saturday evening against VCU he hit 11 of 12 free throws, grabbed eight rebounds, handed out two assists and nabbed two steals on his way to 17 points, including several huge foul shots in the final two minutes.
Then there was reserve Zach Hahn, who scored all eight of his points in a brief second-half stretch that all but sealed the outcome.
“Butler’s going to play the way they play,” said losing coach Shaka Smart. “It’s worked pretty well for them for a long time.”
But the image helps. Cinderella may almost be an insult to a team that’s reached two straight national championship games, but if the Bulldogs are unhappy with that tag, they keep it well hidden.
“You have to have some things go your way,” said guard Shawn Vanzant, who finished with 11 points in 34 minutes. “And there have been some things like that for us.”
But there have also been a lot of big-time plays made by big-time players on college basketball’s biggest stage.
In fact, even Stevens finally admitted, “Our guys made a lot of great individual plays to pull this one out. And making plays is what winning in this tournament is all about.”
They remain 40 long minutes from winning this one, 40 minutes against one of college basketball’s elite programs, just like last year’s match-up against Duke.
Said VCU’s Smart of that matchup, “I’m not a prognosticator. But Butler’s a great team with experience. I wouldn’t be surprised either way.”
Nor would the rest of college basketball. But unbecoming a Cinderella team just happy to be there, Butler’s Mack said this about Monday night: “What happened last year has been on our minds a long time.”
If they play as they did against the Rams, their legacy may remain in the minds of college basketball fans for a far longer time.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...