But before we look into why that's the case, let's pause to really let the possibility of that reality coming true. The Butler Bulldogs, from the Horizon League, winning college basketball's national championship. Try and see the confetti falling all around Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. Think of what kind of call Jim Nantz would make, should it happen. (And will that call be as predictable as we're all thinking it could be?) Can you even see this team winning two more games and that situation unfolding?
If you can create that image in your mind, it's pretty incredible, right? It's unprecedented in this era on every level of every other popular sport. If people thought George Mason reaching the Final Four was a ceiling-smasher, then what would this mean? Would the rules change? How many programs would try to emulate The Butler Way?
I'm not sure how we'd react. Until this week, how many people outside of Indiana knew Butler was located in Indianapolis?
Would a 33-year-old head coach taking a program from a mid-major conference say something terrific about the sport, or would it speak to how so many of us who have praised college basketball's primary attraction — the coaching — was a bit overstated. Either way, Stevens and the Bulldogs winning a title would drum up an entire new batch of conversations. Heck, they already have.
Now let me tell you why it's not only possible, but leaning toward probably that Butler can and will win two more games.
I will start by mentioning the home-court advantage. All teams will have their fanbases travel well, but Butler's contingent is going to be massive. I think that counts for something. There's comfort there. Butler has driven past Lucas Oil Stadium every time it's left campus for a road game. I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the counter argument: Michigan State had a similar advantage on its side last year, yet it lost against UNC.
My counter to that counter: None of the four teams left playing are anywhere near as talented as the Tar Heels were last year.
If you believe the numbers (and you can get numbers to lie, you know), this is one of the "maddest" Final Four foursomes we've had. That alone should tell you the final field is open enough to give Butler, at worst, one of those chances that are often likened to that of a puncher. Butler and Michigan State became the lowest seeds to reach the Final Four since Indiana did it as a 5 in 2002. That Hoosiers team lost to Maryland in a forgettable title game.
More important than that, this team is allergic to losing. It's H-A-R-D to go 32-4 in D-I. I hope you can understand just how hard, even when playing in a conference like the Horizon, which isn't such a shabby cast of characters. Yet Butler has done it and managed to keep a winning streak going that's now stretched to 24 games.
Say what you will about streaks and strategies and the like, but the point is this team has developed a sick habit of finding how to win and doing it their way. That's the important thing to realize. Butler isn't winning games by being a chameleon. No, it's keeping opponents below 60 points (that's happened seven games in a row and 13 of the last 14) and using man-to-man defense that would make any old-school coach blush.
Speaking of that defense, while we can talk about Matt Howard, Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack — the three primary offensive options for Butler — it was Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored who, in my mind, stole the show in Salt Lake City. Both guards got in the grills of, arguably, the best backcourt in the country. Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen combined for two points in the first half of the regional final. That anemic performance was unseen from K-State this season.
But when evaluating Butler's chances of doing the not-so-unthinkable, we have to look at the opponents. Michigan State first, naturally. Do the Spartans do enough things consistently that put them at an advantage over Butler?
Michigan State turns the ball over. Frequently. And it doesn't have its point guard, Kalin Lucas. MSU was able to, again, reach a Final Four. Doing it without Lucas puts this appearance as the most improbably and impressive in Tom Izzo's career. But Butler has the size and more quickness. I like its matchup with Michigan State because Butler has beaten opponents that play like Michigan State many times over this season.
With Duke, it's big three vs. big three. Hayward-Howard-Mack against Singler-Scheyer-Smith. Duke's three would win two out of every three 3-on-3 pick-up games, probably. But individual matchups here (Singler-Hayward, Mack-Smith) no doubt favor the Bulldogs. Stopping Duke from getting 3s off would be key, and we'd again see the Nored-Vanzant combo run amok. That kind of defense is a thing of beauty.
If Butler meets West Virginia, that's where I think it's got the biggest problems. WVU is long. WVU's zone is quickly becoming common knowledge with wannabe experts (like me!). I wonder if Da'Sean Butler is the mismatch that could give Butler fits. West Virginia is the 12th-most effective scoring team in the country. How do you beat a team that knows how to score? You keep the ball away from them as much as possible. Butler certainly knows how to do that.
The Bulldogs can't be looked at as a team with the longest shot to win the title merely because it's the team most are unfamiliar with. The talent, the list of slayed enemies and lack of fear in this team's body language has shown how ready it was for this moment. You think it's going to fold now in when playing a virtual home game? It didn't lose once in Indianapolis this season.
- Michigan State
- Gordon Hayward