College Basketball Nation: 2011 NCAA New Orleans

Bulldogs again find their will to win

March, 26, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- The familiar refrain after Gordon Hayward’s missed half-court shot in last year’s national championship loss to Duke was this: What if the shot had gone down?

Hayward would have been an iconic figure in the sport, owner of the most dramatic basket in the history of the NCAA tournament.

Over the past year, the follow-up question would have been: How much would it have changed the sport if a team from the Horizon League had won the national championship by beating a Hall of Fame coach and a team from basketball royalty?

Well, the shot didn’t go in. Duke won. Hayward is in the NBA. But Butler still changed the sport.

[+] EnlargeRonald Nored and Matt Howard
Chuck Cook/US PresswireRonald Nored and Matt Howard led Butler to another win and advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row.
The Bulldogs paved a path to get back by developing a will that once again propelled them throughout this tournament.

Butler is back in the Final Four after imposing its will in a 74-71 overtime win over Florida on Saturday afternoon.

“Last year in Salt Lake [site of the 2010 West Regional], it was almost like a ride you never dreamed of being on and we relished every moment,’’ said coach Brad Stevens, who is 10-3 in the NCAA tournament in just four short seasons as Butler's coach. “But this team has been so businesslike.’’

Butler had to earn this trip more so than a year ago, when it won 24 straight games going into the Final Four. The Bulldogs lost three straight in the middle of conference play, even falling to lowly Youngstown State on the road. Butler lost five league games, ended in a three-way tie for first and had to win the conference tournament title on the road at Milwaukee.

“There was turmoil that we had to go through after falling pretty down in January and early February,’’ said Butler junior guard Ronald Nored. “We had to earn this. It was tougher than last year.’’

Against No. 9 seed Old Dominion, Butler had to win on a last-second layup by Matt Howard. An inexplicable foul at the end of the second half allowed the Bulldogs to barely eke past top-seeded Pitt.

“We were lucky to beat Old Dominion,’’ Stevens said. “They could be sitting here. Pittsburgh could be sitting here. There’s no doubt that they were great teams. That’s the tournament. It doesn’t matter how you win, you just try to play the next one and hope you get a chance to play the next one.’’

The Florida game Saturday couldn’t have gone worse for Butler early on. The Gators sprinkled in a zone with their man defense and it perplexed Butler. Florida built an 11-point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the game and the Gators looked the part of the more experienced NCAA team, en route to its fourth Final Four under Billy Donovan.

“We got them to take shots out of character for them,’’ Donovan said. “But then they found a way to come down and get another possession. The difference in the game was those 50-50 balls in the last 10 minutes of regulation.’’

They’re called winning plays. Butler has made them for the past few years under Stevens, and to some extent long before that under Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter. Over the past decade and more, those coaches have made this one of the most consistent programs in the country.

“When you get to this point in the season, and I had this with [Joakim] Noah, [Al] Horford and [Corey] Brewer and those guys, there is an internal will and I thought then that our internal will was terrific,’’ Donovan said of the Gators' consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. “I thought [Butler's] internal will, coming down with those loose balls, being quicker in reacting, they just got it. They made plays. Their will at that point in time and their refusal to be denied speaks to something. I thought it stood out. I thought our guys were terrific in that, but maybe not as good as they were.’’

The Bulldogs chipped away at that 11-point lead with plays like the gritty layup from Howard on a putback, a 3-pointer from seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins -- who had played in only 18 previous games and didn’t play against ODU or Pitt -- and a 3-pointer by Shawn Vanzant. The play inside late and the rebounds Butler pulled down after being dominated all game by Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin turned out to be the difference. After being outscored 32-14 in the paint at the point of their 11-point deficit, the Bulldogs went on to outscore UF 14-4 down low the rest of the way. Oh, and don't forget the fouls Nored and Shelvin Mack drew.

“What defines this Butler group was the unselfishness of Ron Nored not starting after starting during the national championship game and guarding [Ervin] Walker as tough as he possibly could and Shawn Vanzant tipping plays and Khyle Marshall and our young guys starting to figure this out,’’ Stevens said.

The Bulldogs head to Houston not as underdogs, but as established members of an elite class. Michigan State went to consecutive Final Fours in 2009 and '10. Florida did it in 2006 and '07. The last mid-major school to make consecutive appearances was UNLV in 1990 and '91.

“I know this: Somebody is going to have to beat us because of our will,’’ Stevens said.

If Hayward’s shot had gone down, Butler would forever be known as the underdog that pulled off the impossible and won a title. Now that the Bulldogs are back on the sport’s greatest stage, the headlines should read differently.

This program, this team, this school, belongs here now. Butler has earned it.

Video: Butler-Florida postgame reaction

March, 26, 2011

Brad Stevens, Billy Donovan and Chandler Parsons talk about Butler's overtime win over Florida.
NEW ORLEANS -- The Bulldogs are going back to the Final Four for a second consecutive season after a dramatic 74-71 overtime victory over Florida Saturday at the New Orleans Arena.

Butler knocked off Old Dominion on a last-second shot. They beat Pitt after multiple mental errors forced a final-possession win over the top seed in the region. They outlasted Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 before taking down the No. 2 seed Gators in the final seconds of overtime.

The Bulldogs were down 11 midway through the second half, climbed back into a tie at the end of regulation and then made the winning plays to capture the victory.

Butler is the first team outside the power-six conferences since UNLV in 1990-91 to make consecutive appearances in the Final Four. The Bulldogs are also team to make back-to-back Final Four trips and not be seeded first or second either time. And not to be forgotten, 34-year-old Brad Stevens is the first coach to ever make his second Final Four before the age of 35. Remarkable.

Butler played most of the overtime without Andrew Smith, who fouled out 18 seconds into the extra period. But it didn’t make as much of a difference on the backboard as it appeared it might.

Matt Howard and Khyle Marshall made key buckets inside and the Bulldogs were able to negate a few big shots from the Gators. Florida's Kenny Boynton made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 67 but then Ronald Nored got fouled and made two free throws.

And then came a bang-bang, back-to-back 3-pointer display. Erving Walker converted from beyond, the arc but Shelvin Mack, the Southeast Regional MVP, answered with his own 3 to take a two-point lead.

The Gators had a chance, though. Both Boynton and Walker missed 3s in the final eight seconds of the game, capping off a 3-for-15 long-range performance by Florida. Butler eventually got the rebound and ran out the clock.

Star of the game: Mack led all scorers with 27 points, including five in OT. Honorable mention goes to freshman Kyhle Marshall, who not only made 4-of-6 shots for 10 points, but also collected a career-high seven offensive rebounds.

Overlooked player: The game Vernon Macklin had for Florida was stellar as he scored 25 and was 11-of-14 from the field.

Coaching key move: Billy Donovan using zone quite a bit played a huge role in the tightness of this game. He kept Butler off-balance for most of the game.

End-of-regulation impressions: Butler actually had a real shot to win this game before overtime had it not been for its poor free throw shooting. Howard missed the back end of a two-shot foul. Had he made the second shot, Walker and the Gators possibly would have handled the final possession. Instead, it was a tie game and Walker -- 0-for-8 from the field at the time -- waited until the final seconds to launch a 3-pointer that was no good. ... Butler missed 10 of 20 free throws while Florida made 13 of 14 during the game. ... The 3s from Shawn Vanzant and a rare cameo from Chrishawn Hopkins helped spur the Butler 11-point comeback late in the second half. ... Alex Tyus and Macklin played some of their best basketball to exploit a weak Butler inside game. But it wasn’t enough to offset Butler’s late strong guard play and work driving inside by Howard.

First-half impressions: Florida should have been up by more than a point heading into the break. The Gators tried as much as possible to use Macklin's size advantage. But there were still too many empty possessions. Macklin dominated with 7-of-9 for 15 points. Foul problems for Howard (two) made him less effective during his 15 minutes. ... Had it not been for Mack making shots early (14 points), the occasional Zach Hahn 3-pointer (two), and the offensive rebounding for Marshall (3 of 3 in the game) the Bulldogs would have been down double-figures. ... Florida did the best job it has all season in the halfcourt defense. The Gators switched up their defense with a 2-3 zone and into man within the possession and the Bulldogs had to go down to the end of the shot clock quite a bit.

What's next: Butler, winner of 13 straight, returns to the Final Four and will face the winner of Sunday's matchup between VCU and Kansas. The Gators go back to Gainesville and finish the season with a 29-8 record.

Video: Vitale, Bilas pick Saturday games

March, 26, 2011

Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas make their predictions for Butler-Florida and Arizona-Connecticut.

Video: Andy Katz's Elite Eight outlook

March, 26, 2011

Andy Katz with a first look at all four of this weekend's Elite Eight matchups.

Video: Butler's Ronald Nored

March, 26, 2011
AM ET's Andy Katz with Butler guard Ronald Nored prior to the Bulldogs' Elite Eight matchup against Florida.

Video: Florida's Vernon Macklin

March, 26, 2011

Florida senior center Vernon Macklin discusses his team's preparation for its regional final matchup with Butler.

NEW ORLEANS -- Breaking down the Southeast Regional final:

No. 8 seed Butler (26-9) vs. No. 2 seed Florida (29-7), 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

What’s at stake: Butler is attempting to go back to the Final Four for the second consecutive season. The last time a team from a mid-major conference went to back-to-back Final Fours was in 1990 and ’91 when UNLV pulled it off.

Florida is looking for its fifth Final Four appearance. The Gators are 4-0 in regional finals, winning in 1994 (when Lon Kruger was the head coach), 2000, 2006 and 2007, the final two times resulting in national titles.

Rich history: Florida and Butler have met twice before in the Big Dance, and the Gators won both. In 2000, 5th-seeded Florida beat 12th-seeded Butler on a Mike Miller overtime buzzer-beater in the first round, en route to finishing as national runner-up to Michigan State. In 2007, the top-seeded Gators beat 5-seed Butler by eight in the Sweet 16. That matched UF's smallest margin of victory in the tournament, as the Gators won their second straight national title.

Hot streak: After a humbling loss to Youngstown State on Feb. 3, Butler hasn't lost since, winning 12 straight. The Gators have won 13 of their last 15.

Path to the Elite Eight: Butler beat Old Dominion (60-58) and Pitt (71-70) on last possessions before opening up a 20-point lead on Wisconsin and the holding on for the 61-54 win. Florida coasted past UC Santa Barbara (79-51), outlasted UCLA (73-65) and then beat BYU in overtime (83-74).

Experience: Florida returned all five starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team, which lost in the first round to BYU. Butler has four players who played significant minutes on the national runner-up team last season.

Remarkable stat: Florida hasn’t had a player foul out this season -- the only Division I team that can make that claim in 2010-11.

Tough matchups: Butler junior guard Ronald Nored will have to take on Florida’s Erving Walker after guarding Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor.

“Erving Walker is definitely a lot smaller than Jordan Taylor, but he’s so quick,’’ Nored said. “He can get by you and finish over you at his size. He can shoot the ball really well. In some ways, they’re similar but their sizes are a little different, so you can guard Erving with a hand in the face and make him shoot quicker.’’

Chandler Parsons will be part of a committee with Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus that will have to defend Butler’s Matt Howard.

“He’s very difficult to guard,’’ Parsons said. “He’s one of the most physical players in the country and he plays smart and just relentless and he doesn’t stop and he’s got a really good motor. So a guy like him, he just battles for 40 minutes and you’re not going to get anything easy with him just because his effort is off the charts.’’

Injury update: Butler center Andrew Smith writhed in pain, clutching his left knee late in the Bulldogs' win over Wisconsin. He said after the game that his left knee was swollen, but he would play Saturday. But on Friday, the Bulldogs said it was his ankle, not his knee. Regardless, he was held out of Friday’s practices and Butler will assess his status for Saturday’s game prior to the tip. But he’s planning on playing in some form.

X-factor: Of course, Butler’s Shelvin Mack and Howard have to score and board, Nored must defend on the perimeter and Smith will need to do the little things up front. But the difference could end up being Khyle Marshall, the freshman forward off the bench. He scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds, blocked a shot and came up with a steal in 18 minutes against the Badgers. Marshall’s length and athleticism will be needed against the Gators’ frontline. UF has scored 100 points in the paint in three tournament games, while Butler has yielded just 52 points inside.

The Gators will get the requisite production out of their starting five. But keep an eye on the production from two reserve forwards. Newcomers Patric Young and Will Yeguete will be significant factors in this game if they can get key offensive putbacks and defend Howard inside. They offer up a combined 10 fouls to offset Macklin and Tyus, and Young is probably the strongest of the group that can handle the scrappy Howard.

Reality check: For everyone constantly wanting to put the Bulldogs in this tidy little box and say how cute and cuddly it is that they are about to reach the Final Four again, just think about the experience in this moment for both teams.

“Butler has been here before and this is our first time here overall,’’ Florida guard Kenny Boynton said. “They are a physical team and I think it’s going to come down to the wire. We have to play hard for the full 40 minutes.’’

Added Walker, “This is a dream, but you can’t get caught in it. You have to be awake. Butler is a great team we have to come out and play our game. We don’t expect it to be easy and it should be a tough challenge.’’

And from the Butler side:

“This is business,’’ Mack said. “You want to get back to that stage and try to enjoy it.’’

“Last year was more of a whirlwind because we hadn’t done it before,’’ Howard said. “Having been there before, at least to this point, you learn how to manage it and deal with it.’’
NEW ORLEANS -- Brad Stevens doesn’t have all the answers.

Sure, he is 9-3 in the NCAA tournament as a head coach. He's taken his team to back-to-back Elite Eights and is one win away from his second consecutive Final Four.

In his four seasons at Butler, he has a remarkable 115-24 record, is 62-10 in the Horizon League, and has won at least a share of the conference title in each season.

But what Stevens figured out early in his career is this: He must continue to learn. He must reach out to his coaching brethren and search out solutions to problems that can persist throughout the course of the season.

It's hard to remember now, but there was a time not long ago that the Bulldogs found themselves in a major rut. They had just lost three straight league games to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and last-place Youngstown State. It was early February and they were 6-5 in a mid-major conference and didn't even look like a fringe bubble candidate for the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesWhen Butler went on a three-game losing streak, Brad Stevens knew to ask other coaches for advice.
So Stevens called for support.

“We talked through it,’’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I kept telling him that it would be OK. We were going through something similar [back-to-back losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco]. I kept following them through January and February and compared how we both took care of business.’’

Like Butler, Gonzaga rallied to win a share of its league title and then won its conference tournament.

“I’m sure the people around the Butler program were lamenting coming off a national championship game with the expectations of all those guys coming back and all that noise,’’ Few said. “But you have to believe in the system. And his guys did. They believed in the core values. He did a masterful job, maybe more so this year than last year.

“It was all fun and games last year, like being on a hot streak at a craps table in Vegas,’’ Few added. “This year he had to go to the ATM three or four times. I would argue he’s the coach of the year now.’’

Stevens didn’t let any personal frustrations flow to the players. He remained poised, the way he has throughout his brief tenure.

“He kept saying there were things we could do better and instilling confidence in us,’’ Butler senior forward Matt Howard said. “He kept saying how we could get our confidence back. They were critical in that next game [a 13-point road win over Cleveland State] and that got us on the run we’re on now.’’

Stevens didn’t lean only on Few. He also called Florida’s Billy Donovan. Stevens befriended Donovan years before and had attended his coaching clinic in August -- set up by Donovan’ top assistant, Larry Shyatt, and their good friend, UCLA assistant Scott Duncan.

Stevens and Donovan talked for 30-45 minutes -- sharing insights and thoughts on how to handle success after a Final Four run. Donovan, of course, has experience in the matter. And more importantly, Donovan has dealt with disappointment after two consecutive titles were followed by two straight NIT appearances.

“What I respect about Coach Donovan is that he’s won two national championships and he’s been to a Final Four before and he’s at the pinnacle of the profession, but he’s always trying to grow and get better,’’ Stevens said. “I’ve always been impressed by that.’’

Donovan, 45, is no wise sage. But he is 11 years older than Stevens.

“It was one of those things where he was just reaching out to share ideas with me,’’ Donovan said. “We bounced different things off each other, and it’s great when you get a chance to be able to talk to someone like that.

“The one thing that I respect and admire about Brad in getting to know him is he’s got a great passion and enthusiasm for the game and for coaching, and I also think he has a tireless and relentless attitude to try to get better and improve,’’ Donovan said. “He loves the game.’’

Few said he views Butler as an elite job, a destination. The Bulldogs have had success from a coaching tree that flowed from Barry Collier to Thad Matta to Todd Lickliter to Stevens.

[+] EnlargeStevens
AP Photo/Amy SancettaDespite several overtures from bigger schools, Stevens hasn't shown any desire to leave Butler.
Stevens signed a 12-year contract after getting to the title game last April. He doesn’t need to take a higher-level job. He has the best job in his league and is at home in Indianapolis. He is at a place where basketball is king -- he has chartered aircraft, made-for-TV games, coveted spots in early-season tournaments, and a program with consistent March success.

“You don’t get to a national championship game or the amount of Sweet 16s that they’ve gotten to by being Cinderella,’’ Donovan said. “That doesn’t happen year after year. They’ve got a great tradition and a great basketball program.’’

Donovan said he feels a responsibility to counsel coaches if any were to call. Stevens did and Donovan was glad to help.

“Probably why Brad and I hit it off is that I see a guy like me that’s trying to get better and trying to improve as a coach, and that’s what I think we’re all trying to do,’’ said Donovan, who added he has sought out the advice of some of the giants in coaching from the NBA, MLB and NFL. “At least I think the best ones are always trying to get better. It’s no different than players. Players are trying to get better.’’

Donovan added an anecdote from his brief stint as a player with the New York Knicks, remembering a story when Larry Bird and the Celtics were playing at Madison Square Garden. The Garden floor was being put down after a hockey game, and Donovan saw Bird taking a few shots while standing on an island of parquet. Bird was shooting at the basket as workers were laying down the rest of the court around him.

“I couldn’t believe it, and it registers that the really great ones understand the level of focus and commitment and time that goes into it,’’ Donovan said. “He was going to be a Hall of Fame player and yet he still had the drive to want to get better. I think in life when you’ve got that drive, you genuinely have a better chance of reaching your potential.’’

And while it’s too early put Stevens in any elite coaching category, his 115 wins after four years is indeed historic. Stevens tops a list that includes NC State’s Everett Case (107), Few (105) and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon (105).

Heading into the Horizon League tournament final at Milwaukee, Stevens said he didn’t know if the Bulldogs could get an at-large bid. But he wasn’t going to let his team fret or feel any additional pressure. When the Bulldogs played with such purpose, pounding the Panthers by 15, he knew then that Butler could go on another run in the tournament.

“After we lost to Youngstown, I told Matt Howard that this three-game losing streak will be the most valuable thing you experience at Butler,’’ Stevens said. “It might not be as fun as a lot of other things, and he’s won 115 games, but it’ll be the most valuable because you’re going to have to react to this and you’re going to have to tread your way through this and you’re going to have to do it together. And if you do it together, it’ll be really rewarding.’’

The words could have been applied to Stevens, too. He adhered to exactly the same advice and it proved just as fruitful, with another Elite Eight appearance in his belt and a chance for much more.

Video: Butler-Florida preview

March, 25, 2011

Jay Williams previews the Butler-Florida Elite 8 matchup.

NEW ORLEANS -- The question that comes to mind is not how Butler got back to the Elite Eight, but rather how did these Bulldogs lose to Evansville and Youngstown State?

The reason is the Bulldogs weren’t perfect this season. They were flawed like every other team. They needed to go through some growing pains, and mercy, have they grown -- a team that started 6-5 in the Horizon League is one win away from another Final Four appearance after beating Wisconsin 61-54 on Thursday night. Meanwhile, Duke -- the team that beat Butler in a thrilling national championship game -- is out of the field after being pummeled by Arizona.

“I thought this team had a chance to be a good team, but even I’ve been unbelievably impressed with its resiliency and ability to play at a higher level,’’ said the calmest coach in Division I, Butler’s Brad Stevens.

“When we lost to Youngstown and to Evansville, it was a few possessions that we didn’t control,’’ added Butler junior guard Shelvin Mack. “We didn’t dive on the ball, we didn’t take charges, we didn’t do the things we needed to win.’’

Well, the Bulldogs haven’t lost since their Feb. 3 defeat to a Youngstown State team that finished 2-16 in conference play. And that includes a road win over Milwaukee -- a team that beat Butler twice this season -- in the Horizon League championship to secure a bid.

[+] EnlargeButler's Shelvin Mack
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREShelvin Mack scored 13 points for Butler, which reached the Elite Eight for the second year in a row.
Since the tournament started, the Bulldogs have made winning plays in the final seconds. Against Old Dominion, Matt Howard made a last-second bucket. Against Pitt, Howard's rebound and subsequent free throw saved the game after a foul by Mack nearly cost Butler the match.

“The foul is over. I keep telling my teammates that, to let it go and move onto the next one,’’ said Mack, in jest. “Yeah, it’s been crazy, there were just a few plays here and there in the first game or we’d be home, and then a few plays here or there in the second game against Pitt or we’d be home. So we wanted to make sure we got off to a fast start.’’

And they did just that. Butler busted out on Wisconsin with a nine-point halftime lead and grew it to 20 in the second half before UW mounted a furious comeback to make it a one-possession game in the final minute. But then Mack hit yet another jumper, and after he missed a free throw a possession later, Howard was there with an offensive rebound. The senior forward finished with 20 points and 12 boards

Butler now faces Florida here at New Orleans Arena on Saturday, with a trip to Houston on the line.

“They’re scrappy, relentless,’’ said Wisconsin junior guard Jordan Taylor. “I don’t know, they’re just tough kids. They never quit. That’s what makes them winners.’’

Taylor finished with 22, but Wisconsin senior forward Jon Leuer was pestered so much defensively that he finished just 1-of-12 from the field. As a team, the Badgers shot 30.4 percent, their second-worst performance of the season.

“They’re just tough kids that are all-around good players,’’ Leuer said. “They play to their strengths.’’

Butler is hardly some cuddly, lower-profile team. You can't name a lock for the NBA draft on the Pitt team, but Mack is a first-round pick and Howard, at the very least, is a second-round pick, according to multiple NBA decision-makers. So that would mean that in the past two seasons the Bulldogs will have produced three NBA players, three more than Pitt and at least one more than Wisconsin.

But Butler still had to earn its NCAA tournament berth the hard way, since the Horizon League does not receive much respect. Losing five conference games changed the perception of this team. The nonconference slate was rugged, with games at Louisville and Xavier and against Duke in New Jersey -- all losses. But let’s not forget that Butler did win the Diamond Head Classic by taking down Florida State and Washington State; the former is in the Sweet 16 and the latter in the NIT Final Four.

“We played Valparaiso early in the year and we lost and we gave up 60 points in a half,’’ Mack said. “That’s not us. We usually don’t give up 60 points in a game. We knew what we had to get back.’’

Howard added that he isn't shocked by Butler’s recent run of 12 straight wins.

“I knew what this team was capable of,’’ Howard said. “I knew the type of guys we had and [what we're capable of] if we buy into Coach’s game plan and are able to execute it.’’

Junior guard Ronald Nored said the Bulldogs found their sense of urgency after some ugly games in league play. He added that when the Bulldogs lost three in a row (to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State), “it set us up for what we’re doing now.’’

“People like to put down our conference, but it’s tough,’’ said senior guard Shawn Vanzant. “The coaches got on us to lock teams down.’’

And that’s exactly what occurred against Wisconsin. Stevens said he knew this week that the Bulldogs were playing at a different clip defensively.

“I was concerned about getting out to those shooters because once Taylor comes off those ball screens you have to pay attention to the guys out there,’’ Stevens said. “Once I saw the way we were rotating out there, I knew we’d be a tough out.’’

So at the end of the night, Butler is 40 minutes away from the Final Four. And Duke is done. Who had that?

“That’s this tournament,’’ Stevens said.

It is unforgiving for the losers. And for the team that can make plays, winning plays -- like Arizona did against Duke for most of its game, and the way Butler did to Wisconsin both early and late -- the tournament can be an incredible natural high.

“Teams go through lulls, and we were in a deep one,’’ Howard said. “Fortunately, this team came together, and no doubt we went through a stretch that looked like we could have had a mediocre season. But we didn’t. I’m very, very proud to be a part of this team.’’
NEW ORLEANS -- Butler coach Brad Stevens strolled toward his postgame interview, gave a little exhale and that was the extent of his emotion after the Bulldogs beat Wisconsin 61-54.

Butler is in the Elite Eight for the second straight season. Ho hum.

Stevens’ postseason run at Butler's helm is becoming epic as the Bulldogs face Florida Saturday at the New Orleans Arena with a chance to go to the Final Four.

OK. After last season's title game, did anybody have Butler in this year's Elite Eight but not Duke? I’d like to see that bracket.

Butler dominated the Badgers for 35 minutes before Wisconsin mounted a furious rally to make it a one possession game. But once again it was Butler making plays, notably Shelvin Mack with a step-back jumper to push the Bulldogs to a six-point lead with 51 seconds remaining. Matt Howard came up with a key rebound off a missed free throw to ensure Wisconsin didn’t get any closer with less than 30 seconds remaining.

Butler has two NBA players in Mack and Howard. The Bulldogs getting to the Elite Eight may not be as much of a shock when think about the talent, the winning plays and the makeup of this group.

The bigger question now is how did this team lose at Youngstown State and Evansville at home?

But that means nothing now. The Bulldogs are tournament tough, tested and in position to return to the Final Four where plenty of other contenders have failed.

Key stats: The Bulldogs dominated the backboard, outrebounding the Badgers by seven and getting 25 defensive rebounds to limit the Badgers’ possessions. The Bulldogs’ defense bottled up plenty of Badger scorers, notably Jon Leuer, who was 1-of-12 and 1-for-6 on 3-pointers.

Stars of the game: Howard scored 20 points and grabbed 12 boards. If you’re an NBA personnel director you must start positioning him in the draft. Mack was once again a solid contributor with 13.

Quite a finish: Wisconsin junior guard Jordan Taylor scored 22 but was 3-of-10 on 3s. Still, he’s a gamer and should be a contender for Big Ten player of the year next season.

What’s next: Butler is off to play Florida Saturday for a berth in the Final Four. Wisconsin can look back at a strong season where they overachieved once again.

Florida's fresh legs finish off BYU

March, 25, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- Florida debated how early to take the last shot of regulation. The differential between the shot clock and the game clock was eight seconds.

The Gators’ coaching staff was adamant that they didn’t want BYU’s Jimmer Fredette to take the last shot.

So when Kenny Boynton lofted a 3-pointer in front of the UF bench with 24 seconds remaining, the staff knew that if it didn’t go in, Florida could be in trouble.

The ball went long. But BYU’s Noah Hartsock and Kyle Collinsworth were confused as to who would chase it down. So no one did. Instead, Florida’s Erving Walker raced to the loose rebound on the opposite side from where Boynton lofted the shot.

“It was so big because they could have easily gone the other way,’’ Boynton said. “Fredette is so good at drawing fouls and taking a last shot. It would have been game over for us. That was a big rebound.”

Chandler Parsons eventually took the game’s last shot of regulation. He missed, but the Gators had done what they had to do -- ensure BYU and Fredette didn’t have the last shot to win the game.

“We had a chance, we got a stop, but we had a chance to get a rebound and they got the offensive rebound and put it out,’’ Fredette said. “And you never know what could have happened if we got that rebound. But they definitely had fresh legs and they were ready to go in that overtime.’’

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireFlorida's defense kept Jimmer Fredette to 11-of-29 shooting and 3-of-15 on 3-pointers.
Florida was rejuvenated in the extra five minutes. BYU was gassed. And the Gators won 83-74 in overtime to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since winning consecutive national championships in 2006 and ’07.

And if the Gators win Saturday here at New Orleans Arena, they might point back to Walker’s hustle play as the reason, or at least an example of the difference between this Gators team and the previous three.

“I was actually kind of lucky because I was supposed to get back after Kenny’s shot, but I just hung around a little bit and I seen the ball go to the corner and I just made a hustle play,’’ Walker said. “I was able to come up with the ball.’’

Hartsock said he saw the ball come off but didn’t react.

“We had stopped them from making a shot, but then we had to play [defense for 14 more seconds]. It was heartbreaking,’’ Hartsock said. “The quick guard picked it up.’’

Said BYU’s Jackson Emery, “That was real big; he shot it early and they were in the position we wanted, but it was tough because we thought we’d have a second chance. It was a big play, and they made winning plays.’’

This Florida team has made a habit of that this season, beating Tennessee twice in close affairs, as well as winning at Georgia and against Kentucky and Vanderbilt on final possessions or within the final few.

“We’ve found ways to make plays,’’ UF coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s an understanding with this group of how much more those things impact winning. I’m not sure they had a clue [earlier]. It took them getting their heart broken a lot to know they had to be more alert and make those plays.’’

Florida’s defense on Fredette wasn’t perfect but it flustered him enough, with the Gators rushing two players at him and running over screens with a big to force him to drive. Fredette’s passing helped the Cougars tie things up tie at the half, and he found the seams to get to the basket by driving.

But Fredette still had to go high volume with 29 shots to score 32 points, making just three of a career-high 15 3-point attempts. His teammates were too 3-happy as well, going 10-of-37 as a team.

The Gators had more offensive balance, with four double-figure scorers to BYU’s one, but the rebounding with Alex Tyus (17 rebounds, 19 points) and Walker (six rebounds), one of the shortest players on the court, proved to be decisive.

“It was a great hustle play,’’ Tyus said of Walker’s rebound.

“We didn’t give them a chance to win it,’’ Parsons said.

And now seniors like Tyus and Parsons are one game away from reaching the Final Four and climbing out from under the shadows of the consecutive titles.

The Gators missed the NCAAs for two consecutive seasons. There were unexpected defections to the pros, such as Marreese Speights and Nick Calathes, and a team that didn’t know how to win big. Yet here they are, winners of the SEC regular season but more importantly, a tougher, grittier team that can finish a game.

The standard for Florida had been set so high with the two titles, a level the Gators couldn’t live up to after losing seven players off the title teams, including three top-10 picks. When the '04s returned for their junior season, Donovan said, recruiting suffered and the staff didn’t back-fill enough to offset the defections.

He crushed his team after that first season for its effort and cavalier attitude. He was frustrated at times with the failure to finish. But he didn’t quit on his players, and they didn’t quit on him or the school.

“It’s been so rewarding for me to see them make the journey they’ve made to this point right now,’’ Donovan said. “It’s been very rewarding and fulfilling for me, and I hope in some way I’ve been able to give them as much as they’ve given me.”

Video: Jimmer Fredette on his last game

March, 25, 2011

BYU's Jimmer Fredette comments on the last game of his memorable college career.

Rapid Reaction: Florida 83, BYU 74

March, 24, 2011
NEW ORLEANS -- The Jimmer show closed its college tour in New Orleans on Thursday night.

Florida outlasted BYU 83-74 in overtime to advance to its first Elite Eight since winning consecutive national championships in 2006 and ’07. BYU’s quest for its first Final Four appearance is over.

Jimmer Fredette was hounded throughout the game, especially in the first half as the Gators continued to rush two players at him at the top of the key, forcing him to drive to the basket. Fredette finished with 32 points but was just 11-for-29 overall, 3-of-15 on 3-pointers. Fredette simply never found a rhythm from long range. The 15 3-point attempts were a career high. There were times when Fredette was forcing his shot and not looking to pass to the rest of the team -- most notably the hot hands earlier in the game.

But the story of the game was the way the Gators made the plays at the end (outscoring BYU 15-6 in OT) and controlled the backboard when it mattered most. Alex Tyus had the game of his life with 19 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. Vernon Macklin may have struggled at the free throw line (1-of-5) but he still came up with a few key buckets.

The Gators’ guards were better than BYU’s when the game was on the line as Kenny Boynton (17 points) and Erving Walker (16) made key buckets down the stretch.

Key play in the game: Walker chased down a huge loose-ball rebound off a Boynton missed 3-pointer at the end of regulation. Chandler Parsons ended up missing the shot at the buzzer, but it prevented Fredette from getting the last shot of the game.

Key stat: Hard to ignore that the Cougars missed 17 3-pointers. Fredette missed 12 by himself, which was three more than he's ever missed in a game.

Miscellaneous: Florida lost to BYU in double overtime a year ago in the NCAA tournament and previously had been 0-3 all-time against the Cougars. ... The Gators are now 13-2 in their past 15 games and advance to their fourth Elite Eight since 2000. Since 1975, they are 9-2 in Elite Eight games and beyond.

What’s next: BYU is done and will join the WCC next season. Florida moves on to the regional final and awaits Butler or Wisconsin.