HOUSTON -- For the Butler Bulldogs, hitting their stride meant decelerating to a walk.
They’re better when they’re slower. The more deliberate the game, the more of a half-court skirmish it becomes, the greater the chance that Butler out-executes its opponent and grinds it into defeat.
In the Bulldogs’ nine losses, the average possession count is 67.3, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics. In their 27 victories, the average is 64.4. That may not sound like a vast gulf, but it’s the difference between ranking 133rd and 278th nationally in tempo.
And Butler has been at its slowest and best in the past few weeks. In its current 13-game winning streak, the Bulldogs’ games have averaged 62.2 possessions.
That makes the contrast Saturday against Virginia Commonwealth rather stark. VCU has excelled this NCAA tournament at speeding up opponents, with its previous three games averaging 69.7 possessions. The Rams’ “Havoc” style was especially effective in the Southwest Regional final against Kansas, which was harassed into eight first-half turnovers and gave up a lot of open shots in transition as the Rams raced to a 14-point halftime lead.
So the push and pull of pace will be paramount Saturday when the two teams hook up in the "Believe It or Not!" national semifinal.
“Butler is as sound as anybody we’ve played all year,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “They’re not going to just start playing your way because you ask them to -- you have to force them to. That’s going to be a battle of wills. It’s going to be a big-time challenge for us to constantly try to get playing a little big faster.
“The other end of it, we have to push the ball on the offensive end and get them on their heels. Anytime you’re playing a great defensive team, the best way to battle against their defense is to beat them down the floor, before they get set, attack them with different actions and with drives and kicks.”
VCU wants havoc. Butler would prefer lying in a hammock.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. What the Bulldogs would really prefer to do is play a half-court street fight -- they’re more physical than most teams think, especially defensively. On the offensive end, they will run a clock-consuming dribble-drive weave up top before looking for perimeter shooters or entering the ball into the post.
They’re never tentative, but rarely in a hurry.
But according to the Bulldogs, they’re not fixated with slowing the game down -- merely with running their sets until the ideal scoring opportunity presents itself.
“I don’t remember coach [Brad Stevens] ever mentioning tempo to us,” forward Matt Howard said. “It’s about running the offense. If somebody’s going to press us, let’s break that press with our set and then get into our offense. We don’t really look at tempo. That’s not something we focus on.”
Full-court pressure was a nightmare for Butler way back in November against Louisville. The Cardinals heated the Bulldogs into a panic, forcing 17 turnovers in a surprisingly easy victory.
Butler obviously has come light years since then -- but a vulnerability to pressure was also a factor as recently as its Sweet 16 victory over Wisconsin. The involuntarily accelerated Bulldogs went from having the game in control to watching a 17-point lead dwindle all the way to four in less than six minutes. They hung on in the end, but not without some tension.
Butler looked much more prepared for pressure in its next game, against Florida, often utilizing its big men as receivers on the inbounds pass and then passing diagonally to the guards to get into the half court. The Gators know how to accelerate a game under Billy Donovan -- and they succeeded in doing so for a while against the Bulldogs -- but it wasn’t enough to win the game.
It’s worth noting right about here that Smart was an assistant to Donovan in 2008-09, so he’ll undoubtedly have insight from the Florida staff on what worked and didn’t work against Butler.
But mostly, both teams will try to do what they do best. VCU will attempt to press, force turnovers and shoot 3-pointers in transition before Butler sets up its barbed-wire half-court D. The Bulldogs will attempt to break pressure, patiently execute on offense and make this a pass-and-screen clinic.
The similarities between the two teams stop at mid-major surprises with gifted young coaches. After that, there isn’t much in common when it comes to style of play.
Whichever style wins out Saturday night will probably dictate which teams is still playing on Monday.