By Brad Thompson–
It seems VCU has stolen the show in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Rams improbable, yet dominant run has been unbelievable, but what’s more amazing is Butler’s return to the Final Four.
Last season Butler was a mid-major, the Cinderella story of the tournament, even as a No. 5 seed. The Bulldogs advanced to play basketball powerhouse Duke in the championship game, only to lose in the final seconds. As big of a deal as it was for a mid-major school to make it to the Final Four, how incredible is it that the same team has done it two years in a row?
Last year’s Butler team was riding a 20-game winning streak heading into the Big Dance. This year, Coach Brad Stevens’ squad lost three straight games in late January and early February. They battled through adversity, corrected mistakes and returned to their winning ways just in time. Butler won the Horizon League Tournament and received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, just like in 2010.
What’s even more impressive about Butler’s second straight Final Four appearance is that they have done it without two starters from last year’s national championship game, including NBA first round draft pick Gordon Hayward. Programs like Butler aren’t supposed to be able to reload like perennial powerhouses like Kentucky or North Carolina.
Hayward was the Horizon League Player of the Year last season. And Butler also lost senior Willie Veasley to graduation; he was a member of last season’s Horizon League All-Defensive Team. Even minus these two critical starters Butler finds themselves in the familiar spot of playing on the last weekend of the college basketball season.
How has Butler done it? Well part of it is still remains a mystery to me, but their stifling defense and imposing will have the most to do with it. Oh and let’s not forget their young, masterful coach.
Brad Stevens is proving that last season was no fluke and that his program does not belong in the mid-major category. Stevens inserted seldom-used Chrishawn Hopkins in the second half against Florida and Hopkins sparked a rally, scoring five points in five minutes. It was just another brilliant coaching move by Stevens and demonstrated how well he knows his team.
The Bulldogs play with a fiery passion and an imposing will. Butler’s ability to disrupt opposing team’s offensives and score at just the right time is a testament to the team’s will. Butler has several talented players, but none of them are serious pro prospects. They make up for their lack of talent with will power.
In addition, the Bulldogs have been as clutch as any team in the tournament. They easily could have lost to Old Dominion in the first round, only a Matt Howard buzzer-beater advanced them. Then an unfathomable foul in the final seconds against Pittsburgh sent them on to the Sweet 16. And it took a late second half rally to force overtime against Florida before the Bulldogs were victorious and on to the Final Four.
I’m not suggesting Butler was lucky, actually quite the contrary. Their tournament experience, clutch shooting and ability to get crucial stops defensively, along with stellar coaching from Stevens has earned the Bulldogs a trip back to college basketball’s holy land.
Now it seems Butler’s role has been reversed in the Final Four. Having been here just a year ago, makes the Bulldogs the most experienced team left and they are favored in their matchup against this year’s Cinderella, VCU.
Incredibly, Butler has conjured up the same magic that left them one basket short of a national championship last year. For a so-called mid-major to come up with this kind of tournament mojo two years in a row is unprecedented in college basketball. Now the question is – can they win it all?
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.