Butler's Diamond Head Classic title could be huge in March

On a day of unwrapped gifts, overstuffed bellies and long-anticipated NBA matchups, college basketball's most significant Christmas story probably received less attention than it deserved.

Butler roared to a 84-68 victory over Washington State in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic, extending an out-of-nowhere five-game win streak that may prove very significant in March.

Questions about Butler's NCAA tournament chances arose after a 4-4 start that included no marquee wins and a loss to lightly regarded Evansville, but the Bulldogs have suddenly restored their hopes of an at-large bid and a decent seed. They defeated Utah, ACC contender Florida State and previously surging Washington State in Honolulu, improving their record to a half-game better than it was at this time during last year's historic season.

There are a handful of keys to Butler's resurgence, but it starts with the Bulldogs' two biggest stars.

Center Matt Howard avoided his usual early foul trouble in Hawaii, playing at least 36 minutes in all three games and earning tournament MVP honors by averaging 18.7 points and 8.7 rebounds. Equally importantly, Shelvin Mack rediscovered his outside shooting stroke in the victories over Florida State and Washington State, sinking seven threes and scoring a combined 37 points.

The other change that has helped Butler is the insertion of Andrew Smith in the starting lineup at center, enabling Howard to slide down to power forward where he seems less susceptible to foul trouble. Smith has started every game since Dec. 1 and had his best performance against Washington State, scoring 10 of his career-high 14 points in the decisive second half.

If Butler was the big winner from Hawaii, there's no doubt the Christmas turkeys were Baylor and Mississippi State.

The Bears return to the mainland with losses to Washington State and Florida State, meaning they still have yet to beat an NCAA tournament-caliber opponent thus far this season. An inability to cut down point guard A.J. Walton's turnovers or to incorporate highly touted freshman Perry Jones in the offense has forced Baylor to rely too heavily on stars Quincy Acy and LaceDarius Dunn.

As for Mississippi State, a loss to Hawaii in the fifth-place game only underscored how big a mess the Bulldogs are. Brawling teammates Renardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey went home on separate planes on Saturday, while the shorthanded group that remained on the island got out-rebounded 41-36 by finesse-oriented Hawaii and out-scored 30-12 in the paint.