NEW ORLEANS -- Duke and Butler, linked by a 2010 national championship game that was as much about the loser as it was the winner, and the trajectory of a shot that was within inches of being the greatest in college basketball history, entered this 2011 NCAA tournament on vastly different footing. The Blue Devils were once again a No. 1 seed, once again expected to be in the Final Four. They were considered a possible national champion, especially if their phenomenal freshman point guard, Kyrie Irving, who'd been injured in an 82-70 win over the Bulldogs on Dec. 4 -- a dud of a title-game rematch in East Rutherford, N.J. -- was able to get back to full health.
Butler was a No. 8 seed that had lost three straight games in a stretch from Jan. 29 to Feb. 3 to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State, and only had one mildly decent non-league win on its résumé, over Florida State on Dec. 23 in Hawaii. It was a good thing the Bulldogs won the Horizon League tournament, beating Milwaukee in the final for the first time in three tries this season, because they might not have received an at-large bid to the NCAAs. That would have gone down as quite the flop -- from last year's runner-up to missing the dance altogether.
What was realistic for Butler in the 2011 bracket? Beating No. 9 Old Dominion in the first round, sure, but knocking off No. 1 Pitt in the second? Unlikely. The notion of the Bulldogs being in the same league with Duke, in contention for a Final Four or a title, seemed have ended in 2010, when Gordon Hayward's shot missed. That tournament run, as a No. 5 seed, was such an incredible story that it could not be repeated. The ending had left Butler players in disbelief. At the conclusion of Tim Layden's one-year-later deconstruction of the Duke-Butler epic in this year's SI tournament preview issue, Matt Howard sat in the front row of the stands at Hinkle Fieldhouse and said, "When the last game ended, I was just thinking, 'This can't be real. There's got to be more time. There's got to be another shot. Right?'"
Then, there was nothing more than Howard lying on the center-court logo at Lucas Oil Stadium while Duke began to celebrate. But a year later, there would be more big shots for Butler -- and specifically, big shots for Howard. "All Matt cares about is winning," his teammate Shawn Vanzant said, and all Howard has done this March is make winning plays. His clutch put-back in the second round beat the buzzer and offed the Monarchs. His free throws against Pitt, after Nasir Robinson committed an inexplicable foul in the final second, sent the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 in New Orleans. And in the Big Easy, there was Howard again, at the line with 3.2 seconds against Wisconsin, icing a 61-54 win that put his team in the Elite Eight. He had 20 points and 12 rebounds in what would go down as a thorough schooling of the Badgers' frontcourt. He also helped hold their star forward, Jon Leuer, to 1-of-12 shooting, his worst performance of the season.
Duke's bid for a repeat national title ended in Anaheim, at the hands of No. 5 Arizona. (Getty Images)
Butler freshman Khyle Marshall watched Howard's final free throws from the bench, smiling. As a high-school senior last March, Marshall had made the trip from his home in Davie, Fla., to stay with fellow Bulldogs signee Erik Fromm's family in Indianapolis and see their future team play against Michigan State and Duke. Now Marshall is in the thick of his own tourney run, and thriving; he had seven points (on 3-of-3 shooting) and grabbed seven rebounds in 18 minutes against UW, and he punctuated the end of a big Butler first half by blocking Jordan Taylor to preserve a 33-24 lead into the break. If that wasn't surreal enough, what Marshall spied on the scoreboard during the second half was: "I looked up and saw a score" -- Arizona 93, Duke 77 -- "and was shocked," he said. "I was like, 'Duke just lost?'"
It happened. On a night where the Bulldogs were delivering a dominant performance in New Orleans, their title-game foe from 2010 was falling apart in two time zones away Anaheim, its defense yielding 32 points to All-American Derrick Williams and allowing No. 5 Arizona to pull off the upset. This tournament has been full of surprises -- a Southwest region with three double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16, a West region final between Arizona and UConn, and Butler rather than Duke in the Elite Eight. As brilliant as the Bulldogs were in last season's dance, this was not something many of us expected.
Of course, this is exactly what Butler expected. Not that Duke would get upset -- "People were telling me how they wanted a Duke-Butler rematch in the title game," junior Ronald Nored said -- but that the Bulldogs would still be alive within one game of the Final Four. "Honestly," Nored said, "from the beginning of the season we thought we would be at this point. We had some hard times in the middle there, but I think we're right where we thought we'd be."
When this tournament began, they were undaunted by the fact they were a No. 8 seed, and had put their midseason swoon out of their minds. No one on the Butler roster had experienced a three-game losing streak in his career before the one that happened in February, and in a team meeting after the loss to Youngstown State, Shelvin Mack spoke up and urged players to remember their roles, to get back to doing the things they do well, to rededicate themselves to hustle. "I didn't want to let the season slip away," he said.
Their defense had lost its way, giving up 59 points in the second half and overtime of the Jan. 29 loss to Valparaiso, at a rate of 1.17 points per possession. In the 2010 NCAAs, the Bulldogs only gave up 60 points in one whole game -- to Duke, which was the lone team to break 1.00 PPP against them in that tournament. "There was some doubt that was creeping in," Howard said of the losing streak, "because you're not used to playing like that."
Butler had no defensive identity then; it had lost its two most versatile defenders, Willie Veasley and Hayward, and was committing more fouls while forcing fewer turnovers. But it discovered a defensive identity down the stretch and started guarding like the Butler teams of old, going on a nine-game winning streak to close the regular season. Wisconsin was going to be the Bulldogs D's toughest test; the Badgers came into Thursday's game as the No. 1 most-efficient offense in the nation, and their point guard, Taylor, was excellent at controlling the ball. On Wednesday, Butler coach Brad Stevens said of Taylor and his 4.18-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, "I don't think I've seen a point guard who takes care of it better than him in my 11 years of coaching."
But Stevens and assistant Terry Johnson, who was assigned the scout of Wisconsin, devised a game plan that forced the Badgers to turn the ball more times in the first half (eight) than they averaged per game on the season (7.5), and have an effective field goal percentage of 36.6 percent -- their lowest on the season aside from their 36-33, Big Ten tournament debacle against Penn State.
"I thought we defended ball screens pretty well," Stevens said, and this was true: They corralled Taylor off UW's signature high ball screens and -- this is where many teams have failed against the Badgers in the past -- rotated to cover his bigger teammates on the perimeter. "We played with a lot of energy and rotated to shooters," Johnson said. "We found a way to keep them off balance." Taylor had 22 points but needed 19 shots to do it. Vanzant and Nored, Johnson said, did an excellent job following the scouting report and not giving Taylor any space to make plays. When he gave up the ball, it rarely found its way into the hands of an open man. He had a highly uncharacteristic two assists against four turnovers.
Howard, meanwhile, played at an All-America level. He was the Bulldog with the most energy of all. His clutch plays in their first two wins were, in part, due to being in the right place at the right time -- but they were also due to his never-ending desire to impact every possession. "Matt just has a knack for the ball," Nored said. "He plays so hard that he's pretty much coming up with it."
Howard's offensive rebound of Mack's missed free throw with 28 seconds left -- and the two free throws Howard sunk after that -- gave Butler a safe, 59-52 lead. When he stood at the line 25 seconds later to hit two more, he cut a curious figure, with black tape haphazardly wrapped around both knees, skin showing through in places; his arms reddened from knocking around UW's front line; and a giant, wet mop of hair that he hasn't as much as trimmed since practice started in October. ("It's kind of a tradition," he said of the grow-out.) The current poster boy of Butler basketball is a mangy, beat-up throwback of a forward.
When the Bulldogs reached their locker room on the night they survived and Duke died, sophomore Emerson Kampen began preparations for his customary NCAA-tournament-win celebration with Stevens: a running, flying back bump. CBS cameras had captured this after Butler beat Pitt, and it was uploaded multiple times to YouTube. "I was stretched out, I even got a warmup [jump] in, and then we just didn't do it," Kampen said, " I don't know why."
Former Butler guard Darnell Archey, their coordinator of basketball operations, was sitting next to Kampen, and speculated that it had something to do with the way the game had ended: the coaches hadn't been pleased about the way Wisconsin was able to cut a 20-point deficit down to four with 1:38 left. "We might get one on Saturday, on [Southeast Regional] championship day," Archey said. "We might get one then."
That's when the Bulldogs face No. 2 Florida, which hasn't lost to a team other than Kentucky since Jan. 29. The Gators delivered a stout defensive performance of their own on Thursday, making Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading scorer, take 29 shots to get to 32 points. To pull off an even more improbable tourney feat than last season's and get back to the Final Four, Butler will have to battle with Florida's formidable frontcourt. Expect Howard to be in the thick of things, to find a way to get his hands on the ball with the game on the line. He couldn't believe that the clock ran out on Butler's last title run, so he bought time for another one. He's going to get at least one more shot.
More Thursday Thoughts
• Butler's coaches are avowed fans of tempo-free statistics -- Stevens told the New York Times he browsed kenpom.com to get a sense of Duke prior to last year's title game -- and it was cool to see references to offensive and defensive rebounding percentage on the Bulldogs' whiteboard (seen at right). They break down "margins" at halftime, including raw turnover margin (they had four to Wisconsin's eight at the break) and loose ball margin. But OReb% and DReb% are parts of the kenpom lexicon, and while Butler trailed in both categories at the break, it won them on the game, getting 36.1 percent of ORebs and 69.3 percent of DRebs.
One interesting tempo-free stat that wasn't on the Bulldogs' whiteboard: While they won the game, this was the first time they scored less than one point per possession (0.969 PPP) since their last loss, on Feb. 3 to Youngstown State.
• I wish CBS and Turner had synced up the start times for BYU-Florida and UConn-San Diego State so The Jimmer and Kemba could've waged a scoring war in realtime. I was following the Huskies via March Madness on Demand while sitting courtside in New Orleans, and on the Internet broadcast, Kemba was always at least three minutes ahead. He finished with 36 before Jimmer headed into overtime with 32, and it seemed that Fredette would surpass him ... but Florida didn't allow him to score a single point in the extra period.
The battle tactical battle between Florida's D -- an effort led by Kenny Boynton and assisted by Scottie Wilbekin -- and The Jimmer was highly intriguing. I asked Gators assistant Larry Shyatt, their defensive guru, to shed some light on what was successful, beyond the simple fact that Boynton was relentless in chasing Fredette off screens and challenging shots:
"There were people that gave us advice, like push him left, or do this," Shyatt said, "but we felt like, let's play to our strengths. In the first half, if it's a pick and roll in the middle of the floor, let's corral him and make him give it up if we could, and play the odds with [Noah] Hartsock or one of the subs shooting it.
"In the second half, we said, if the pick-and-roll was on the side of the floor, let's maybe do something else, by changing personnel. They were trying to put Vernon Macklin [Florida's least agile big man] in a lot of pick-and-rolls, so we kept kept changing men to keep Vernon from having to guard those situations. We'd use either [Alex] Tyus, [Chandler] Parsons, or Will Yeguete. Anybody but Vernon.
"With about three or four minutes left in the game, I said to [fellow assistant] Richard Pitino, you know, these guys are doing a heck of a job on this kid. Because I thought we were guarding him well. [Pitino] said look up -- and I saw that Fredette had 30 points already. So it is what it is. He's a terrific player who's utilized well by a staff that knows how to use him."
• One of the best parts of the tournament, for the teams, is the police escort. While the rest of us wait for media shuttles and then wait in traffic to arenas, team buses hurtle to their destination with the help of cops on motorcycles, sirens blaring, lights blazing. I caught a video of Florida arriving at New Orleans Arena prior to the game; the clip also includes a fine scalper exchange and a shot of the entrepreneurs who were selling "Teach Me How to Jimmer" shirts for $15. Now that The Jimmer's illustrious amateur career is over, he should ask for a cut of that action.
[wpvideo 0ElO3t3B w=590]