Butler, UConn punch tickets to title game

Butler Bulldogs’ Matt Howard (L) and Shawn Vanzant celebrate near the end of their NCAA Final Four college basketball game against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, in Houston, Texas April 2, 2011. The Bulldogs won the match. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Butler 70, VCU 62

Virginia Commonwealth came into Saturday night’s game hot as a pistol from three point range. The Rams hit 44% from behind the arc in the first five games of the tournament, but were unable to keep that accuracy up against the Bulldogs. VCU made 8-of-22 (36%) from 3PT, which is right on their season average.

Butler outrebounded VCU 46-30 which made up for some poor shooting (36%) by the Bulldogs. Those extra possessions allowed Butler to get to the line 26 times as compared to VCU’s 13 free throw attempts.

UConn 56, Kentucky 55

Kemba Walker (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting) didn’t have the greatest night in the scoring department, but the UConn defense showed up and held Kentucky to just 34% shooting from the field. The Huskies were dreadful from long range (1-for-12 from 3PT), but they hit 22-of-37 from 2PT range (59%) which was enough for the win.

For a moment, it looked like Shabazz Napier was going to be the goat after turning the ball over with less than a minute to go and UConn nursing a two-point lead. But after Kentucky missed a go-ahead three, Napier was there to secure the rebound and nail two free throws with 2.0 seconds remaining to seal the win.

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Tweeting the Final Four

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Final Four Primer

A combination picture shows Butler Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens (L) and Virginia Commonwealth Rams head coach Shaka Smart during their respective practice sessions in Houston, Texas, April 1, 2011. Their teams will meet in the first of two NCAA Final Four college basketball games on April 2. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Butler and VCU tip things off today at 6 PM ET, so while you wait, here is some opinion from around the internets. Also, be sure to check out our quick and dirty Final Four preview.

Carson Cunningham, Real Clear Sports: In Indiana we play basketball. It sounds cliché, but it’s true and you can try to quantify this. During Butler’s most recent tournament wins over Wisconsin and Florida, for instance, you could’ve noted that Indiana has about three times as many Division I basketball players as Wisconsin, even though the two states’ populations are nearly identical, or that Indiana colleges have produced 14 Final Four teams compared to the state of Florida’s 5, even though Florida has about three times as many people as Indiana. But basketball runs deeper in our veins than stats like this. When we watch Butler play basketball we’re reminded of the time we spent with our dads when we were 5 years old and of what our coaches taught us when we were 6 and 7. Whether it’s watching a dribble-drive to set up a backdoor, a sweet stroke from deep that draws nothing but net, or a lefty hook that represents thousands of hours of practice from Butler’s academic All-American Matt Howard, we can relate. Growing up, we practiced the same things for hours.

Gregg Doyel, CBS Sports: For VCU to continue its rampage toward the national championship, the Rams will have to do exactly what they’ve been doing. But their toughest test of the tournament — tougher even than what might await Monday — will be Butler. Because what VCU has done for five games is impose its will on the opponent. And nobody imposes squat on Butler. Butler is impervious to pressure, impervious to stress, impervious to whatever the other team is trying to do to it. Which means this game won’t just be a test of skill. It will be a test of will.

Pat Forde, ESPN: In its current 13-game winning streak, the Bulldogs’ games have averaged 62.2 possessions. That makes the contrast Saturday against Virginia Commonwealth rather stark. VCU has excelled this NCAA tournament at speeding up opponents, with its previous three games averaging 69.7 possessions. The Rams’ “Havoc” style was especially effective in the Southwest Regional final against Kansas, which was harassed into eight first-half turnovers and gave up a lot of open shots in transition as the Rams raced to a 14-point halftime lead. So the push and pull of pace will be paramount Saturday when the two teams hook up in the “Believe It or Not!” national semifinal.

Richard Justice, Houston Chronicle:
In the most delicious matchup of this Final Four, Liggins today almost certainly will be asked to slow down the best player in the NCAA Tournament. Connecticut junior Kemba Walker is generously listed at 6-1, and that’s irrelevant anyway. When you watch him play, when you see him work for the ball, wear down defenders and create opportunities both for himself and others, his height becomes irrelevant. No matter what else Walker accomplishes in basketball — and he’s almost certain to be a top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft – it may not be more impressive than what’s he done these last few weeks, putting a team on his back and taking it from the middle of the pack in the Big East to the threshold of a national championship.

Eamonn Brennan, ESPN: Jeremy Lamb has become a star. There’s no getting around it: This is Kemba Walker’s team. In many ways, from Maui to Manhattan to Anaheim to Houston, this has been his season. But UConn’s presence in the Final Four has just as much to do with Lamb’s emergence as a bona-fide star in his own right. The UConn forward has gone from a lanky, raw freshman to a versatile, comprehensive scorer. He’s made 11 of his 15 3-pointers in UConn’s four NCAA tournament wins, and he’s complemented that outside attack with an array of drives, pull-ups and pretty mid-range floaters. Can Lamb keep this up? If he does, he makes UConn’s Walker-led attack even more dangerous, and that’s bad news for the other three members of this unlikely Final Four.

Ken Davis, NBC Sports:
One day before Kentucky defeated North Carolina in the East Regional championship game, Kentucky coach John Calipari shared an interview podium with his starters. Calipari calls Knight one of the most conscientious, hard-working players he has ever been around. So, when he was asked to describe how Knight has the confidence to take the game-winning shots he has become known for in the NCAA Tournament, Calipari gave an answer that revealed much more about his young star. “He will be in the gym at 11 at night,” Calipari said. “Then he will be in the training room icing his knees or his legs at 6 in the morning. Academically, he got mad the other day when he got a 91. What class was it that you got that 91 on a test?” “Sociology,” Knight answered. “Still got an A, but he is mad,” Calipari said. “He’s conscientious. So he feels that he will make that shot. And more importantly, why I put the ball in his hands, he is not afraid to miss it. If you really want to be that guy, you have no fear. ‘If I miss this shot, I miss it. I am not afraid to miss this shot. Life will not end.’ I feel comfortable putting it in his hands because I know his work ethic.”

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)

This moment of madness brought to you by Muscle Milk®. It’s powerful protein. Drink. Evolve™

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.

Matt Painter staying at Purdue

Purdue head coach Matt Painter talks with guard Kelsey Barlow during the first half of their NCAA South Regional college basketball game against Duke in Houston, Texas, March 26, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

It looks like Painter’s flirtation with Missouri has paid off, per ESPN.

After talking with Missouri about its coaching vacancy, Painter decided to stay at his alma mater Wednesday and agreed to an eight-year contract through the 2018-19 season.

“I am extremely excited about continuing my career at Purdue,” Painter said in a statement. “I believe we have built something very special. At the same time, I feel we have much more ahead of us to accomplish. At the end of the day, my heart is at Purdue, and this is a place where I want to win a national championship.”

Last year, Purdue rewarded Painter with a contract through the 2016-17 season. It included a $1.3 million base salary and up to $1 million in incentives.

Terms of the new deal were not disclosed.

His current salary of $1.3 million sounds plenty healthy to me, so I looked up Bo Ryan’s contract, and he has a rolling deal that is paying him $1.25 million per season. Apparently, $1.3 million wasn’t enough for Painter, who successfully leveraged Missouri’s interest into another raise.

Not bad for a guy whose team finished the season with an 18-point loss to VCU.

Check out Midwest Sports Fans for a funny photo story featuring Painter, Purdue Pete and Brad Stevens.

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