In a battle of the teams that weren’t supposed to make it, the Butler Bulldogs will square off against the Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) Rams at 6:09 p.m. eastern on Saturday. The winner of this game moves onto the championship round.
The loser gets forgotten.
Nobody expected Brad Stevens and his Butler squad to be back at this point again this year. Last year’s run to the championship game was dismissed by critics as a one-time occurrence attributed far more to the brilliant play of Butler’s NBA prospect, Gordon Hayward, than anything the coach or supporting cast brought to the table.
Turns out, the team was actually just a well-led, well-coached bunch taking the next step to college basketball greatness during last year’s March Madness sprint to the finish line.
Even if you didn’t discount the Bulldogs as a one-hit wonder this year, the team’s play to close out the regular season wasn’t much of a confidence booster in terms of how far they would go in the tournament. They finished tied for first place in the Horizon League, sure, but they were hardly dominant in doing so. And, of course, given the quality of competition in that conference, dominance is an absolute must.
Nevertheless, Butler got its invitation to the Big Dance and made sure not to squander the opportunity. Schools like Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida were all victims of the Bulldogs’ 13-game winning streak, and now, Butler will aim to add another tally to their wins total as they take on the Cinderella to top all Cinderella stories – VCU.
On the offensive end, the Bulldogs have been led by Matt Howard who has averaged nearly 17 points and eight rebounds per game. He, along with Shelvin Mack and Shawn Vanzant (who average 15.9 and 8.1 points per game, respectively) make up a large chunk of the 72.1 points per game on 44.3 percent shooting from the field that this group has averaged.
This Butler group is also a better offensive rebounding team than their VCU counterparts with nearly 35 per game, and that may ultimately play a huge role in who ends up winning this game.
VCU, meanwhile, opted for the long cut to make it to this point. A play-in game, countless top-tier opposing teams and bad-mouthing from every commentator in the nation were checkpoints in the Rams’ journey to the Final Four. However, with victories against USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas on their resume, VCU has proved it once and for all: They deserve to be here.
Led by personable head coach Shaka Smart, this squad looks nothing like the group that finished in fourth place in the Colonial Athletic Association this year.
Offensively, this group’s scoring attack is led by Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess, who average 15.4 and 14.2 points per game, respectively. Also key to the team’s success is guard, Joey Rodriguez, who averaged 10.5 points and 5.1 assists per game. Altogether, this squad has been good for nearly 72 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the floor.
While Stevens has come out and publicly blasted the importance of his team’s experience when it comes to playing at point in the college basketball postseason, it appears to be one of the few edges his club has. These two schools are both on hot runs, both have interesting under-the-radar coaches and are both media darlings. Regardless of who wins, a good story is to be had after this game.