HOUSTON, Tex. – Welcome to Houston, home of the Mid-Major World Basketball Championship. Actually, it’s just one of two semifinals at the Final Four Saturday. VCU and Butler, stroking the flames of belief for all the underdogs out there, meet tonight at 5:09 local time, 6:09 Eastern Standard.
Butler, as you surely know, made it all the way to the Championship Game last year and came within a halfcourt 3-pointer of winning it all as a five seed. This year, the No. 8 seeded Bulldogs have stunned everyone by springing upsets all along the way, including Pittsburgh, the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region.
Coached by wunderkind Brad Stevens, Butler presents a number of challenges to the Rams.
First and foremost, the Bulldogs are disciplined. Offensively, they thrive on running crisp sets. Butler will want to control tempo. Other teams in the tournament have wanted to force the Rams into a more deliberate approach, most of them have failed. The difference between Butler and some of the other teams VCU has faced in this tournament is that the Bulldogs are a more veteran (eight juniors and seniors) team that is not easily rattled. If the Rams can get this game into the 70′s, they’ll be in good shape.
Butler is an outstanding defensive team, especially on the perimeter. Opponents have shot .326 from the 3-point line this year, which, as we know, is a strength of VCU. Then again Florida State was the best defensive team in the country, statistically speaking, so it’s not like VCU hasn’t been down this road before. Another possible factor in controlling the 3-point line could be the venue, spacious Reliant Stadium, although Shaka Smart doesn’t seem took concerned.
“There’s not really much we can do about it, it’s not going to change,” Smart said. “They looked pretty good shooting it just now. We went to the Alamodome last week. It was a bigger arena than we’re used to playing in and we shot it great. We’re hoping that same thing continues.
“I think if you’re a great shooter, you make shots. If you’re a bad shooter, you can be in the best shooter’s gym in the country and that thing’s not going in.”
VCU is 15-2 this year when making 10 or more 3-pointers in a game. If they make 10 tonight, the Rams will be playing on Monday.
Rebounding will also be critical. The Rams’ struggles on the glass have been well documented and Butler is a good rebounding team, boasting a plus-3.2 margin. In their 60-58 win over Old Dominion in the second round, the Bulldogs outrebounded the Monarchs, who had been statistically the best rebounding team in the country.
It’s not an end-all for the Rams, who were outrebounded by 15 and 10 in wins over Florida State and Kansas, respectively, but it’s a much easier road when VCU is minus-two then if the deficit is 10 or more.
Matchups to watch:
Ed Nixon vs. Shelvin Mack: Mack has 78 3-pointers this year, so Nixon won’t be able to back off and defend against the drive. He’ll need to be up in Mack’s face from the outset.
Jamie Skeen vs. Matt Howard: Howard is Butler’s leading scorer (16.7 ppg) and rebounder (7.7 rpg). Like Skeen, he can step out and hit the three (52-of-122 this year). It’ll be interesting to see if the Rams continue to play man-to-man defense and let Skeen guard Howard around the perimeter, or if Smart will switch to some zone.
Joey Rodriguez vs. Ronald Nored: Nored is a defensive stopper and will look to limit Rodriguez’s play-making abilities. Rodriguez has been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament at creating plays and finding shooters. Nored will try to limit that.
Havoc vs. The Butler Way: This game will be a test of wills. If the Rams can control the pace of this contest, they’ll be in great shape.