Butler basketball head coach Brad Stevens' rallying cry this season has been, "Gordon Hayward isn't going to walk through that door," in reference to Butler's lottery-talented forward who jumped the Bulldogs' ship after an NCAA Tournament championship run a season ago. He's right. Luckily for the Butler faithful, other important cogs to the NCAA Tournament runner-up like Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard continue to lace them up while Stevens, the young firebrand, coaches them up.
Considering the absence of Hayward, Butler's most gifted player a year ago, it comes as no surprise that the Bulldogs have had to embrace another tournament rallying cry, "Survive and advance." Butler has had to win ugly, for the most part, during its historic tournament run with buzzer beater wins vs. ODU and Pitt, and nail-biters against Wisconsin and in OT vs. Florida. It hasn't been talents like Hayward that have helped BU advance in these games-it's been tough defense, ferocious board work, and timely shooting that have carried the day for Stevens' group.
Players to Watch
Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are the stalwarts for this Butler squad, and each player has improved his own game to help pick up the slack after Hayward's departure. Howard has extended his range beyond the three point line in a fashion reminiscent to what Christian Laetner did for his Duke team as a senior. Power forwards who can step out beyond the arc are gold in the college game because they extend the defense and open up driving lanes for teammates.
Just as Bobby Hurley was a beneficiary of Laetner's newfound range, Shelvin Mack has enjoyed more room to operate as a result of Howard's three point shooting stroke. Mack enjoyed this room to maneuver against Florida and almost single-handedly vanquished the Gators with a variety of slashing drives to the goal on a bum ankle as Gator forwards chased Howard around the arc.
Outside of those two headliners, Butler butters its bread by being able to plug in other players from game to game depending on situation and need. Need a big bucket and unheralded players like center Andrew Smith can get it, evidenced by the buzzer beater vs. Pitt. When Smith gets hurt against Florida, Butler plugs in reserve big man Khyle Marshall to give Stevens starter quality minutes. Need a defender, ballhandler, or shooter? Respectively, Shawn Vanzant, Ronald Nored, and Zach Hahn have all answered the bell over the course of the season.
The point being it's not just one guy than can beat you, the Bulldogs have a roster full of them.
Scouting Virginia Commonwealth
Coach Stevens wants to make this as ugly a game as possible. He wants a slow, grinding tilt that takes the emphasis off of shooting and puts a premium on defense and rebounding. VCU can put four and sometimes five shooters on the floor at any given time, especially when Jamie Skeen is playing center, so obviously a halfcourt to halfcourt battle is more conducive to exploiting interior matchups and rebounding advantages than a fullcourt affair while taking the emphasis off of offensive basketball. In the half court, Butler wants to pound VCU's best player and only post threat Skeen with their two post players Howard and Smith and they won't be able to accomplish that if the pace is up and down.
On the flipside, VCU wants to play fast so they'll employ their fullcourt pressure to try to turnover the Bulldogs and at the very least speed up the pace. Not only does this style protect Skeen from having to defend the post, but it also opens up the floor for the Rams talented shooters to find open looks. If Butler turns it over or accepts VCU's invitation to play fast, they'll be playing away from their own strengths while playing right into the hands of the more offensively talented Rams.
Butler is among the smartest teams in all of college basketball and they're certainly the most experienced team left in this tournament. That said, they've been shaky with the basketball at the guard spot at various times along their journey. They almost collapsed and blew a 20 point lead when faced with Wisconsin's desperate full court pressure and they've had double digit turnovers in three of their four tournament games-without facing a true pressing team.
Additionally, they've given up a lot of open looks from beyond the arc in their last two ballgames against Wisconsin and Florida. Fortunately, Taylor and Leuer had awful shooting nights for the Badgers, and Florida's Erving Walker couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat in Butler's overtime win. If the Bulldogs give up those types of looks to white-hot shooters like VCU's Rozzell and Burgess, or simply get drawn into to a fast paced basketball game that leads to more possessions, they're going down. In that scenario, they'll need Gordon Hayward to come walking through the door.