Tougher Team Triumphs
Shelvin Mack is Butler's most talented player, but for much of this NCAA Tournament he's almost been a side note. Matt Howard made the game-winning plays, got the presidential recognition — and handshake — during this Final Four week, emerged as the endearingly-messed-up-haired star of the Bulldogs' repeat run.
But when the games finally began on Houston's enormous stage — including a raised floor that looked like one — Mack became the star of the show.
With Butler's guard dropping 24 points on VCU (the only real Cinderella in this mid-major first semifinal matchup), pulling his team back whenever the 11th-seed made a run, the Bulldogs toughed out a 70-62 win. So Butler's in the national championship game for the second straight year, staring down college basketball history again, this time as an eight seed that is nobody's underdog.
This time, it's about taking care of unfinished business.
"We expect to be in this position," Butler guard Ronald Nored said.
"Last year we didn't get it done," said Mack, who hit eight of his 11 shots . "It's in the back of our minds."
It all played out in front of more than 70,000 fans, including George Bush (who took time to pose with all the Butler cheerleaders), Barbara Bush and NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Both Bushes shook hands with Bulldogs forward Matt Howard at the NCAA Salute Thursday night and the experience made them Butler fans.
Howard had just found out that he won an award for having the highest grade-point average of any player in the Final Four and Salute host Jim Nantz knew that the Bushes (Barbara in particular) are devoted to the cause of reading and education, so he made the introduction in front of a nearly-full Wortham Theater Center.
"The idea came to me the night before," Nantz told CultureMap. "I sort of played it by ear. I know it can be hard for George to get up out of his chair quickly and I wondered if the stage wasn't too far away, but he and Barbara were getting up all night to clap, so I went for it. Just imagine what kind of thrill that must be for Matt Howard. You're in the Final Four and you're shaking a president's hand. Pretty cool."
The experience has the Bushes pledging their allegiance to Butler in this Final Four of unexpected stories.
Bayou City Power
Houston would pass its Final Four test with class — and ease.
There were no major problems with people getting into the stadium, no temporary seats that didn't work — none of the blunders that plagued the Super Bowl in Dallas just a few months ago.
On the floor, it wouldn't be so simple. Nothing came easy in the first semifinal game.
VCU center Jamie Skeen followed up his 26-point performance against Kansas with 27 points in the Final Four, but it wasn't enough for the First Four team to keep marching.
Not with Mack making all the big steadying plays. Not with Howard finding a way to cobble together 17 points and eight rebounds on anything but his best night. Not with Hahn coming off the Butler bench to score eight straight points in one critical second half stretch, in many ways pulling a mini Shelvin.
Butler (28-9) has not lost since Feb. 3, a streak determined by willpower as much as talent. Fourteen straight wins now. Making it 15 on Monday night will bring a national championship.
Mack doesn't plan on letting up now.
"Shelvin is relentless, fearless," said Butler guard Zach Hahn, who has been playing with Mack for three years. "He's just a big-time player. Some of those shots where he's pulling up in transition, you might think those are bad shots. But we don't think so.
"Because Shelvin's the one taking them."
If one thing personifies these Bulldogs, it's toughness. The trait runs up and down the roster, demanded by coach Brad Stevens, the 34-year-old who looks like Harry Potter but coaches like a Marine commander.
You'd better not let up until the job is done.
"We're not celebrating a lot or anything," Butler guard Shawn Vanzant said. "This is about taking care of unfinished business and we've got one more game to go. If we win on Monday night, we can celebrate."
There's no mid-major attitude here.
Ronald Nored is the Bulldog most often charged with outworking an opposing team's lifeline into submission and he was at it again Saturday night, bumping VCU's ever-charging point guard Joey Rodriguez (1-for-8 shooting).
Butler scored the first five points of the game, but anyone who thought VCU was finally seizing up on the biggest stage of all hasn't followed this team. The Rams responded by hitting three straight 3-pointers and suddenly the Bulldogs found themselves playing at the underdog's frantic pace.
Rodriguez kept pushing the ball up the court, Skeen kept popping outside, Bradford Burgess (15 points) kept finding his spots on the floor.
VCU's approach is pretty simple, but it's also frantic. Even the best basketball teams in the country aren't used to having this much pressure put on them.
But Butler has what No. 1 seed and VCU-victim Kansas did not: One of the best guards in the country. Mack is the stabilizer that bullied Butler back.
With his team a little wobbly, Mack dropped in 13 first-half points and by the time halftime arrived, the Bulldogs held a 34-28 lead with the game having returned to their physical style. Fast isn't quite so fast after a few bruises. Butler was the bigger, more rugged team and it showed on that space-aged Final Four floor.
In going from the First Four to the Final Four, VCU held the lead at halftime in all five of its NCAA Tournament wins. This time, the Rams needed a comeback.
They opened the second half with a 7-0 run to regain the lead. But Butler never lost its tight grip on the game.