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Saturday, March 27, 2010
Again, Butler does it with defense

By Eamonn Brennan

Butler v Kansas St
Ronald Nored and the Butler Bulldogs limited Jacob Pullen, Kansas State's leading scorer, to 14 points.
Butler has played, and won, four games in the NCAA tournament. In all four, the Bulldogs have held their opponent to less than 60 points.

This might seem like an innocuous statistic. It is not. Butler is heading to the Final Four in the school's hometown of Indianapolis, and the reason is simple: defense.

Butler's first two games were understandably low-scoring. Neither UTEP nor Murray State, the Bulldogs' first- and second-round opponents, were particularly good offensive teams; like Butler, both relied on their defenses. But once Butler got past its first two rounds, their defensive performance became considerably more remarkable.

Syracuse was one of the nation's most efficient offenses and shot the second-highest effective field goal percentage in the country. Butler held the Orange to .92 points per possession and forced 18 Orange turnovers. Syracuse scored 59 points.

Then Saturday a decidedly up-tempo team, averaging 1.17 points per possession and scoring about 90 points a game in the NCAA tournament, faced the Bulldogs and did neither of those things. Not even remotely. Kansas State scored .88 points per possession, ending the game with 56 points and bowing out of the NCAA tournament in sluggish fashion. (The Bulldogs likewise shut down leading-scorer Jacob Pullen, who had scored 34 and 28 points in his previous two games, shutting him out in the first half and limiting him to 14 points overall.)

Some of that sluggishness might be attributable to Kansas State's fatigue. The Wildcats are, again, an up-tempo team that rely on speed and defensive harassment. Playing a double-overtime game with Xavier two nights ago couldn't have been good for Kansas State's legs. It fits precedent, too: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the last nine teams to win an overtime game in the NCAA tournament lost their next game. Maybe Kansas State was just tired.

But Butler deserves a lion's share of the credit. Kansas State is a batch of well-conditioned college athletes; fatigue alone can't explain such a large drop off in pace and scoring efficiency. That accomplishment has to be credited to the Bulldogs, who have now stopped two of the country's most dynamic offensive teams in the most important games of their season. Butler has an uncanny ability to control games. If you play Butler, you play at Butler's pace, and you have to score against one of the most coherent team defenses in the country. As of March 27, that's who Butler is.

Upon arriving home -- oh, and how great would it be if we could play the Final Four in Hinkle Fieldhouse? -- Butler's next task will be to stop either Michigan State or Tennessee. Both teams will present challenges, but neither team is as effective offensively as either of the Bulldogs' previous conquests. Could Butler win it all? With defense like this, I wouldn't bet against it.