Final Four calls for Butler
SALT LAKE CITY – Ronald Nored first revealed his fearlessness to his Butler teammates last year when he ran for freshman class president – and promptly won.
The rest of the nation discovered Nored’s fortitude Thursday when the sophomore sank the 3-pointer to spark Butler’s comeback over Syracuse in a West Regional semifinal, even though he was shooting just 17 percent from beyond the arc at the time.
Guarding the hottest player in the NCAA tournament with a Final Four berth on the line just seemed like the next logical step.
Nored scored only four points Saturday in a 63-56 victory over Kansas State that earned Butler its first trip to the Final Four, yet he may have been the most valuable player on the floor. He held white-hot Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen scoreless for the first 22 ½ minutes of the game and symbolized the defensive effort that has made the Bulldogs America’s favorite underdogs.
“This is probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Nored said.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (32-4) are about to play in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, about seven miles away from Butler’s campus.
Butler’s remarkable run could make a household name of Gordon Hayward, the potential first-round draft pick who was selected as the regional’s most outstanding player after collecting 22 points and nine rebounds against the second-seeded Wildcats (29-8).
But the Bulldogs wouldn’t be planning the wildest homecoming in school history right now without the defensive wizardry of Nored and Willie Veasley.
“They’ve been doing that all year,” Butler forward Matt Howard said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. It may surprise some people that, hey, [Syracuse guard Andy] Rautins had a tough night. Pullen had a tough night. [Kansas State’s Denis] Clemente had a tough night. It was hard for them. But it doesn’t surprise me at all. These guys are unbelievable defensively. They know that’s their job, and they want to do that.”
Butler doesn’t have a single starter taller than the 6-foot-9 Hayward, but the Bulldogs haven’t allowed any opponent to crack the 60-point mark in this entire tournament. Butler has held each of its last three opponents – Murray State, Syracuse and Kansas State – to its lowest point totals of the season.
The Bulldogs owe their success at least in part to Nored and Veasley’s defense.
How tough are they?
Pullen and Clemente walked into the EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday as the hottest backcourt in the nation. They walked out having shot a combined 11-for-30 while facing constant pressure from Nored and Veasley. Neither Pullen nor Clemente scored a single point for the game’s first 19 ½ minutes.
“They definitely weren’t getting the looks they normally got or the easy shots that were normally falling for them,” Veasley said. “We did manage to frustrate them a little bit.”
The impact Nored and Veasley made could be summed up in the following halftime statistic. Butler backup center Andrew Smith, who hadn’t made a single tournament appearance before Saturday, had scored three points. And that was one more than the combined point total of Pullen and Clemente.
Pullen averaged 25.7 points per game through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, but he didn’t score Saturday until 17:30 remained in the game. He went 24 ½ minutes before making his first basket and didn’t hit his first jump shot until the final 8 minutes.
Nored had watched footage of Pullen’s postseason performances and knew what he needed to do. Nored guarded Pullen so closely that, if he had a razor in his pocket, he could have shaved the Kansas State star’s trademark beard.
“Nobody was really physical with him,” Nored said. “People lost him. I wanted to stay with him, not lose him, be really physical with him and see how it changed his game. I think I did [change his game] a little bit.”
Pullen finished the day with 14 points – the last two coming on a meaningless basket at the buzzer – but he made just 4-of-13 shots. Butler’s deliberate pace seemed to bother him all day.
“They never try to let the game get out of their reach,” Pullen said. “They don’t try to get sped up. They try to do what they want to do, when they want to do it. Defensively, they just try to hound everybody, try to stay in the lane, pack it in so there’s nowhere to drive. Then they just sent five guys to the glass every time.”
Clemente heated up in the second half and collected a team-high 18 points, including a 3-pointer that gave Kansas State its only lead of the game with 4:50 remaining. But he also missed his first five shots of the day while Butler built a double-digit lead.
That was a credit to Veasley’s amazing versatility.
Veasley, a 6-3 senior forward, spent Thursday night guarding Syracuse’s Wes Johnson, a 6-7 forward and future lottery pick. He spent much of Saturday’s game trying to slow down Clemente, a 6-1 guard who can race the length of the court in the blink of an eye.
“He goes and guards the most athletic kid in the country one night to the fastest kid in the country the next night,” Nored said. “That’s how versatile he is. He can guard a big. He can guard a guard.”
Veasley can guard just about anyone, just as his team can beat just about anyone.
Now that Butler has reached the Final Four, can’t we put to rest this notion of the Bulldogs as cuddly upstarts? Butler has won 24 consecutive games, and the Bulldogs haven’t done it with mirrors. They’re simply outplaying higher-seeded teams.
When Butler blew double-digit leads in each of its last two games, the Bulldogs didn’t fold. They simply got back to work and outplayed Syracuse and Kansas State down the stretch.
Even as they committed 20 turnovers – just one off their season high – they maintained their composure and never let the game get away from them.
And when Howard picked up two fouls in the first six minutes of the game, Butler didn’t allow Kansas State to capitalize on its clear height disadvantage. Butler coach Brad Stevens simply reached toward the end of his bench and pulled out an ace.
Smith had scored 20 points all season and hadn’t made a single appearance in the NCAA tournament. At this time last year, he was playing for Covenant Christian, an Indianapolis school with about 350 students from ninth through 12th grade. He played a season-high 12 minutes Saturday and helped Butler outrebound Kansas State 41-29.
Now he’s coming home to Indianapolis as a Final Four participant.
“Last year we won our first sectional in school history, and that was a great feeling,” Smith said, “but I don’t even know what to compare this to. This is unbelievable.”
Actually, it isn’t unbelievable at all. The Bulldogs said after the game they had set the Final Four as a goal at the beginning of the season.
Howard recalled how Stevens had talked last year about trying to reach the NCAA tournament. When the Bulldogs lost in the first round, Stevens said maybe he had sold his players short and that they should try to win the whole thing in 2010.
So they entered this season always believing they could end the year by playing the Final Four in their home city. Now that they’ve met this goal, they don’t intend to be charitable hosts.
“I think this is what we expected at the beginning of the season,” Nored said. “We’re not here to just go back to Indy and go to the Final Four and celebrate. We want to win the whole thing.”
Pretty bold words.
After what Nored and Co. have done the last couple of weeks, who’s going to argue with them?