Why Butler will win
HOUSTON – It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and no team in the country has shown the ability to close out opponents better than the Butler Bulldogs.
In running off NCAA tournament wins over Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia Commonwealth, the upstarts from the Horizon League haven’t blown anyone out, winning by an average of 4.2 points. But they’ve shown a poise and confidence at the end of games that can only come from experience and a killer instinct. Its clutch efforts in the waning seconds in victories over the Monarchs, Panthers and Gators provide evidence.
Making its second consecutive appearance in the national championship game, expect Butler to become the first non-power conference team to wear the crown since UNLV in 1990.
Wizened Bulldogs such as senior Matt Howard, junior Shelvin Mack and junior Ronald Nored will take a tight game Monday night from a formidable opponent in Connecticut and make it their own.
“You have to trust your teammates,” Howard said. “It’s a belief that whatever you talked about doing, you’re gonna do it. We have a belief in each other that we can get it done when it comes down to the end of the game.”
There is nothing mid-major about this program, which has rallied to win 14 consecutive games after losing five conference contests and coming into the tournament as a No. 8 seed. Here are some of the reasons Butler will cut down the nets at Reliant Stadium.
• Veteran leadership: When it comes to tournament play, there is no substitute for familiarity and Butler has it in abundance. Mack is a prolific scorer who is averaging 21.8 points in the NCAAs and has a penchant for taking and making the big shot. Howard is a force inside who averages a team-best 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds. The team’s emotional conscience, Howard can impact things on the glass and as a defender. The X-factor may be Nored, charged with stopping UConn’s Kemba Walker. He spent Sunday studying the Husky star’s tendencies and feels like he can limit Walker’s effectiveness. Expect him to do so and put the pressure on UConn freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier to produce.
• Pacing themselves: The Bulldogs aim to control tempo and limit the Huskies’ possessions. They have held six of their last 11 opponents to fewer than 60 points and won 31 of 32 games when limiting their opponents to less than 60. Defense is their hallmark and that has never been more evident than their run through March. They held VCU, Wisconsin and ODU to less than 40 percent shooting. Expect them to frustrate UConn into slowing down and settling for less-than-ideal looks.
• Brad Stevens: The coolest coach in the country sets the tone for this team. His results since taking over the program four years ago have been stunning. A 117-24 record including a pair of trips to the title game show Stevens is something special. He has set the NCAA record for wins by a coach over his first four years. And at age 34, he’s just getting started. Not a yeller or a screamer, Stevens gets his point across just the same. Watching him work the officials in a semifinal win over VCU was a study in his understated savvy and complete command of everything on the court. The calm, focused, businesslike demeanor his team wears is a direct reflection of its leader, a former pharmaceutical salesman. Butler stays true to its principles of dogged defense and opportunistic offense, the goal being to play the same way in the final minute as it did over the first 39. The Bulldogs have hit their stride at the right time and they can thank the steady hand on the bench for never allowing them to veer from “The Butler Way.” Falling a halfcourt shot at the buzzer away from upsetting Duke a year ago, Stevens will push his troops over the top this time.