Don’t forget about Brad Stevens and Butler

Butler’s head coach Brad Stevens cheers on his team during the NCAA National Championship college basketball game against Duke in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5, 2010. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

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Much of the attention this week has been devoted to Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth, and deservedly so. But let’s take a moment to appreciate what Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs have done over the last two seasons.

Last year, when Butler (a #5-seed) knocked off Syracuse and Kansas State to make the Final Four, there was a lot of Cinderella talk. But since #11-seed VCU made it to Houston this year, people are sleeping on the #8-seeded Bulldogs. They lost their best player (Gordon Hayward) and two other rotation players (Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes), replacing them with Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall and Chase Stigall, none of whom average more than 24 minutes per game or 8.8 points per game. So this is essentially the same team as last year’s minus an NBA player (Hayward) who is getting healthy minutes off the Utah Jazz bench. And they still made the Final Four, upending three of the top four seeds in their region along the way.

Much of the credit goes to Stevens, who in early February wrangled a 14-9 team that was in a tailspin coming off three straight losses to UW-Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State. At that point, the Bulldogs’ tourney hopes were on life support, and they needed to string some wins together to even have a shot to make the postseason. Over the next month, they rattled off nine-straight victories, including wins over Cleveland St. and UW-Milwaukee in the Horizon League Championship to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

To fill the scoring void left by Hayward, Matt Howard stepped up his average from 11.6 to 16.7, while also bringing rebounding (7.7 per game), three point shooting (42.6%), along with unequaled grit and hustle. Howard is the team’s heart, but when they need a shot, they turn to Shelvin Mack, the team’s best offensive player. This kid has hit some huge shots over the last two seasons.

But the real reason that the Bulldogs have made a repeat appearance in the Final Four is that they’re back to playing championship caliber defense, which is something that they struggled with for most of the season. In four tournament games, they’re holding opponents to a stingy 41% shooting from the field, and just 30% from the three-point line. They’ll have to defend the three well if they hope to beat the Rams, who are hitting 44% from distance in the tourney.

Given their matchup with an #11-seed, the Bulldogs are in the unusual position of being the favorite. If Saturday’s game comes down to the final few possessions, one has to believe that Stevens and the Bulldogs have the necessary experience and moxie to pull out a win. A team’s personality generally reflects its coach, and Stevens is the model of poise on the sideline. His teams never seem to get rattled.

Two consecutive Final Four appearances by a mid-major program? That’s one heck of an accomplishment.

So let’s take a moment to appreciate Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Tweeting the West Region

My buddy LaRusso got us tickets to the West Region Sweet 16 games, and I’ll be tweeting throughout the SDSU/UConn and Duke/Arizona games (@FantasyShrink). Join the conversation!


These zebras aren’t living the High Life

Texas Longhorn head coach Rick Barnes argues a call with an official during the second half of the Longhorns’ win over the Oklahoma Sooners in the quarterfinals of the NCAA men’s Big 12 basketball championship at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Dave Kaup (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

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There were three big, end-of-game calls on Sunday, and each was suspect in its own way.

The first came at the end of the North Carolina/Washington game. With his team trailing by three, Washington’s Venoy Overton heaved a shot from half court with his off hand because he thought he was going to get fouled by the North Carolina player. The foul never came and his shot fell short, glancing off the hands of UNC’s John Henson before landing out of bounds. The replay clearly showed the ball hit the floor with 1.2 seconds on the clock, but there was a lag between when the official finally blew his whistle and when the clock operator stopped the clock. It was still Washington’s ball, so they got that part right, but instead of having 1.2 seconds to get a shot off, the Huskies only had 0.5 seconds to work with. Washington’s coaching staff asked the officials about the time and were apparently told that it was correct. In other words, the refs didn’t even bother to go to the replay in this crucial situation to ensure that there was enough time on the clock.

With only 0.5 seconds on the clock, Washington chucked up a desperate two-pointer that fell short. Huskies lose, Tar Heels advance.

The second officiating fail came towards the end of the Syracuse/Marquette matchup with the game tied and less than a minute to play. It was Syracuse’s ball at midcourt. As the pass came in to an airborne Scoop Jardine, one of his feet landed on the halfcourt line. The ref saw that and called Syracuse for a backcourt violation.

Sounds fine, right? Wrong. The rule clearly states that an airborne player can land in the backcourt when the ball is being inbounded. It doesn’t matter if he jumped from the frontcourt to the backcourt, because he never established position with the ball in the frontcourt.

The ref gave the ball to Marquette, who took control of the game by promptly hitting a three-pointer on its next possession and went on to win by four points. Orangemen lose, Golden Eagles advance.

The final officiating fail was the worst. Texas led Arizona by two points with under 10 seconds to play, and the Longhorns were inbounding the ball on their own baseline. The ref tossed the ball to Cory Joseph and started his five count. When the official finished his fourth swing of the arm, Joseph turned to the ref and called a timeout. Only instead of granting it, the ref called a five second violation.

On the next play, Arizona’s Derrick Williams took the ball to the rim, scored and was fouled for a potential three-point play. He hit the free throw, giving his team the lead for good. Longhorns lose, Wildcats advance.

It’s never easy to be an official, but Sunday reminded us just how tough it is sometimes for the zebras to live the High Life.

Charles Barkley debates Rick Pitino about the Big East [video]

Rick Pitino joined the March Madness coverage and got into a little debate with Charles Barkely, who obviously isn’t a big fan of the Big East.

I love Pitino’s statement at 0:50 that “Notre Dame will not lose tonight” (to Florida St., whom they did lose to…badly).

The Big East is currently 9-9 in the tourney with two teams still alive (UConn and Marquette). Based purely on seeding, we would expect the conference to be 14-6 with five teams (Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville, Syracuse and UConn) still alive. Barkley is right that the Big East didn’t have a powerhouse team like the Big Ten (Ohio St.) or the Big 12 (Kansas) does, but it is a good conference top to bottom. Marquette is a good example. They beat a solid Xavier team and then upset Syracuse. Sure, it would be more impressive had they beaten a non-Big East team to make it to the Sweet 16, but it’s still an impressive run for an 11-seed.

If UConn and Marquette go quietly into the dark night against SDSU and North Carolina, respectively, then we can really wonder about the conference’s strength, but if UConn wins and Marquette gives the Tar Heels a good game, isn’t that enough?

It’s interesting — when Barkley made that comment about the Big East having solid but unspectacular players, I looked at a first round mock over at NBADraft.net, and the only Big East player projected to go in the first round is Kemba Walker. (There are six Big East players projected to go in the second round.) DraftExpress also shows one first rounder (Walker) and six second rounders.

Jay Bilas probably summed it up best on Twitter:

March Madness: The first two rounds in pictures

Here’s a look back at the first two rounds (or three rounds if you want to buy into the NCAA’s terminology) of March Madness.

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in the first half during the NCAA second round Southwest regional at the Pepsi Center in Denver on March 17, 2011. Morehead State defeated Louisvillie 62-61. UPI/Gary C. Caskey
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