First Piece of Four
Butler has about as much business being in another Final Four as Bradley Cooper does of winning an Oscar.
Yet, the Bulldogs are the first team to punch a ticket to Houston, thanks to the best coach in college basketball. That would be Brad Stevens, whose work with this flawed, often unsightly Butler team should be immediately sent to Springfield, Mass.
Butler wasn't really an underdog when it made that run to the national championship game last March. Anyone who truly followed college basketball at all knew that. Those Bulldogs were stacked. They had a Top 10 NBA Draft pick (forward Gordon Hayward) and a ton of very good players.
This year's version of the Bulldogs? Not so much.
Mostly, what pushed Butler to Houston is Stevens. This was never more evident than in Saturday's Southeast Regional final when Florida coach Billy Donovan let the boy wonder 11 years his junior X and O him to elimination. You only have to look at the good shots the Bulldogs got in the game's tightest moments and the wild heaves the Gators settled for in their most tense possessions to explain Butler's 74-71 overtime win.
When Butler needed a shot down one late in regulation, it worked the ball to Matt Howard, who drew a foul. After Howard made one of two free throws to knot the game, Florida had the chance to win the game, to win its way to Houston. Donovan had called timeout before Howard stepped to the free-throw line, setting up a play for Florida's last shot.
How did that shot play out?
Gators junior guard Erving Walker dribbled out almost all the clock before firing up a 24 footer at the buzzer that had no chance. Walker — who finished 1-for-10 from the field (in other words, not exactly the guy you want shooting with your season on the line) — showed no indication that Florida had anything else planned besides a bleed down of the clock and the hope-against-hope fire up of a bad shot by a cold player.
Once Shelvin Mack gave Butler a 72-70 lead in OT, Donovan and Florida once again settled for an ill-conceived and worst-executed prayer. This time, Gators guard Kenny Boynton forced up a 26 footer with plenty of time left on the clock.
Donovan has the much more talented team and he still cannot get his guys a good shot when it matters most? Forget the fact that Florida was in complete control of the game for most of the second half before seizing up late and letting Butler rip off a 13-4 run. That can happen. But the inability to execute down the stretch, to even get good shots — especially contrasted with the precise plays Stevens had Butler running — is a glaring indictment.
Yes, Butler benefitted from one of the worst calls in NCAA Tournament history to beat Pittsburgh (that game should have gone to overtime). But Stevens' coaching still put them in position to win the game. He's done it all tournament, pushing his team along with the most effective sets in college basketball.
You're looking at the best coach in America. And one on the Florida sideline who should be ashamed — national championship rings regardless.
"These kids are laying it all on line on both sides," the always-composed Gus Johnson screamed into the microphone during the overtime. "These kids want to get to Houston."
Yes, both Butler and Florida's players fought with everything they had. But only one of their coaches gave his guys a real shot.