College Basketball Nation: 2011 NCAA Washington DC

Kemba Walker, Connecticut stay hot

March, 20, 2011
3/20/11
1:22
AM ET


WASHINGTON -- Kemba Walker likes to say his Connecticut Huskies are "shocking the world."

Except when does this become less stunning?

When does Connecticut’s run, now seven games strong after topping Cincinnati 69-58 to advance to the Sweet 16, become expected rather than unexpected?

"I think people still don’t really believe what we’re doing," Alex Oriakhi said. "People have been underestimating us since the preseason, but we like it this way."

The underdog role seems to suit the Huskies just fine. They have won seven games in 11 days, a whirlwind run that took UConn first to a Big East tournament title and now to the Sweet 16. Connecticut will travel to Anaheim, where it'll face 2-seed San Diego State on Thursday.

UConn beat Cincinnati much like it has in every game during this run. The Huskies road the coattails of Walker, who continues to play on a different level. With his 33 points against the Bearcats, Walker is now just 25 points short of 900 for the season.

That’s a career for ordinary folks.

“I’ve had some amazing leaders, but I’m not sure I ever had one quite like him,’’ UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.

The Huskies also called on their defense against UC. Connecticut didn’t score at a blistering pace, somewhat limited by the physical play of Cincinnati. But it didn’t matter. The Huskies went tough for tough, edging a bigger team in rebounding 34-22, and containing big man Yancy Gates, who had a quiet 11 points and could never establish the inside presence Cincinnati needed.

“We know he’s their best player,’’ said Oriakhi, who finished with 11 critical boards. “So we tried to front him and do the best we could.’’

The best was pretty good, as it has been for two weeks now. Oriakhi admitted that before the Huskies departed for New York, their confidence had wavered. UConn lost on senior day in Storrs to Notre Dame, failing to send off its senior class in the manner they would have preferred.

But two spirited practices before the Big East tournament lifted their spirits and a win against DePaul got them back into the zone.

Connecticut is playing with a swagger and confidence. These guys are young enough to not realize what they are doing is impossibly difficult and brazen enough to believe that they can do more.

"We’re a family. We believe in each other and we don’t care what anyone else thinks,’’ Walker said. “We’re not done shocking the world. Not yet."
WASHINGTON -- A quick look at Connecticut’s 69-58 win against Cincinnati.

Overview: The Huskies’ improbable run through March continues as they advance to the Sweet 16 after dusting their conference foe.

Turning point: Jeremy Lamb drained a 3-pointer with 11:44 to play to break a 43-43 tie and ignite an 11-4 run to take Connecticut to the victory.

Key player: As always, it’s Kemba Walker. He didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor (8-of-20) but he got to the line and there, he was perfect. Walker was 14-for-14 and finished with 33 points.

Key stat: The Huskies beat the bigger, and presumably more physical, Bearcats on the boards, 34-22.

Miscellaneous: The UConn big men did a good job containing Yancy Gates. Gates had 11 points and only 11 touches. … Jamal Coombs-McDaniel gave the Huskies a great boost off the bench with 10 points.

Up next: The Huskies will face No. 2 seed San Diego State in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim. The previous time UConn headed West for a regional, it went to the Final Four. That was in 2009.


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Matt Howard stepped to the line while bedlam and hysteria broke out around him.

One side of the Verizon Center booed its displeasure; the other screamed its joy.

Pittsburgh players, who just seconds before were euphoric, now stood with faces paralyzed in disbelief.

Butler players, who only seconds before stood frozen, smiled in euphoria.

“It was weird, I was really calm,’’ Howard said.

He was a lone resident of that island.

Emotions were stripped bare in Butler’s 71-70 upset of No. 1 seed Pittsburgh, leaving even the winners feeling like wrung out dishrags.

[+] EnlargeMatt Howard and Ronald Nored
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesMatt Howard and Ronald Nored celebrate the unlikely ending in Butler's win over Pittsburgh.
Pitt players sat quietly at their lockers, staring into the distance. They were more lost than hurt -- trying to figure out how they could lose a game that they should have won, or at least sent to overtime, with two seconds remaining.

In Butler’s quarters, there was joy but just as much head-shaking as the Bulldogs tried to figure out how they won, lost and won again all in the span of three seconds.

“I can’t believe it,’’ Butler's Ronald Nored said. “I’ve never felt like that in a game before in my life. I don’t even know what to say.’’

For Pittsburgh, a team that missed the Final Four on an end-to-end buzzer-beater two seasons ago, the loss adds another improbable finish to its resume of woe.

“I’ve never been through anything so crazy,’’ said Gilbert Brown, whose terrific game (24 points on 8-of-11 shooting) will instead be remembered for the single missed free throw in five chances. “It’s hard to fathom what just happened to us. I can’t really explain it.’’

There were actually three acts to this grand finale, an operatic drama that packed more action into 10 ticks of a clock than some teams can cram into a season.

Pitt had the ball and a 69-68 lead, but instead of bleeding the clock for a good shot, Ashton Gibbs heaved a disaster after the shot clock already expired.

With eight seconds left, Butler inbounded the ball to Shawn Vanzant and the player who set up the winner against Old Dominion appeared to do it again. He drove down the right side of the lane and dumped the ball to Andrew Smith. The sophomore laid it in and Butler led 70-69 with three seconds left.

“Here I am, I think we won it after Andrew’s shot,’’ Howard said. “And there were still two more possessions. How does that happen?’’

How it happens is two great players make bad decisions and an officiating crew thrusts itself into the endgame maelstrom, calling two fouls in the final three seconds that put an anticlimactic finish on a game that deserved better.

“We do it every day,’’ crew chief John Higgins said. “It just happened to be a crucial part of the game. You have to do what you have to do as an official.

“If we get it right, we’re good. If we get it wrong, we’re deadbeats and we’re all over SportsCenter. We did what we think is correct.’’

The truth is, it was the two teams that made the mistakes.

After Smith’s would-be game-winning basket, Pittsburgh threw the ball in toward the sideline, right in front of the scorer’s table and Shelvin Mack went with Brown when he went for the ball.

The ball went out of bounds but before it did, official Terry Wymer raised his hand, signaling foul.

“I was so mad at myself,’’ Mack said. “I went to the huddle and my teammates were telling me to keep my head up, but I couldn’t believe it.’’

Until that point, Mack hadn’t just been Butler’s hero, he’d been their superhero. He scored 30 points and absolutely dismantled Pittsburgh’s defense from behind the arc, where he hit 7-of-12 3-pointers.

When the foul was called, Brad Stevens looked as upset as the preternaturally calm coach has ever looked, throwing his arms and grimacing toward the officials.

But the Bulldogs have long has been a team of no excuses. Yes, their budgets are smaller. Yes, the odds are against them. But no, they don’t really care. So while they may have been stunned that the officials sent Brown to the line with two seconds left, they weren’t complaining.

“I told Shelvin, there’s absolutely no way he can put himself in that position,’’ Nored said.

Added Stevens, “If he was impeding his progress to get the ball, then it’s a foul.’’

Brown went to the line and sunk the first free throw to tie it at 70. But then the 78 percent free-throw shooter missed the second.

In between shots, Dixon elected to keep his players under the basket, rather than pulling them back, a decision that seemed harmless at the time but later would prove fatal to his Panthers’ season.

“Everybody is going to question that, but I did what I thought we should have done,’’ Dixon said. “I wanted our shooter comfortable and I didn’t want to be pulling our guys off the line while he was going for his second shot.’’

As Brown’s missed freebie fell to the right side of the rim, Howard went up to get it. Nasir Robinson came up behind him and when the two landed, Antinio Petty raised his fist.

He had called Robinson for a foul 92 feet from the basket, putting Howard on the line for two free throws with 0.8 left on the clock.

The crowd, still reeling from the call against Mack, howled its disapproval while the officials checked the monitors to make sure the call and foul came before the buzzer.

They did and so Howard went to the line. He hit the first, intentionally missed the second and the game was over.

Afterward, a disconsolate Robinson -- who sobbed through an interview and had to stop after just three questions -- was not angry.

“I blame myself,’’ Robinson said. “I’m smarter than that. I have been playing this game too long to make a dumb mistake like that. I blame myself.’’

If anyone can appreciate how Robinson and Pittsburgh feels, it is Butler.

As the Bulldogs ready for their third Sweet 16 run in the past five years, they aren’t so callous as to not empathize with their latest victims.

Eleven months ago, they sat dumbstruck in a locker room in Indianapolis, their shot at glory, and no less than history, missed by the fraction of an inch.

“I really feel for them because I know what it’s like,’’ Howard said. “We just sat there and couldn’t believe we had lost. I can’t imagine going out the way they just did, but I know how they feel.’’

Video: Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon

March, 19, 2011
3/19/11
11:19
PM ET


Pitt coach Jamie Dixon talks about the tough loss to Butler.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A quick look at Butler’s wild 71-70 win over Pittsburgh.

Overview: Absolutely top-shelf basketball in this game, with two experienced and intelligent teams leaving it all on the floor. Sadly it ended in controversy, with two fouls called in the final two seconds.

Turning point: Gilbert Brown missed the second of two free throws and just when the game appeared headed to overtime, Petty instead signaled foul with 0.8 on the clock. Matt Howard went to the line and hit one to win it.

Key player: Shelvin Mack and Brown both need to be mentioned. It was like they were playing H-O-R-S-E. Mack finished with 30 on 10-of-16 shooting (7-of-12 from 3) and Brown with 23 on 8-of-11, 4-of-5 from the beyond the arc. Neither senior wanted to lose.

Key stat: Butler drained 12 3-pointers to Pittsburgh’s six. Long-range shooting kept Butler in the game.

Miscellaneous: This game didn’t play exactly the way as advertised. It was brutal and physical but both teams shot much better than anticipated. How about Pitt shooting 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3 and losing? … What Ronald Nored does for Butler will never show up adequately in the boxscore. The point guard never looks to score but instead runs his offense flawlessly. Nored finished with three assists, but he’s the kind of guy you need to give out hockey assists.

What’s next: Cinderella lives again as Butler advances to the Sweet 16 against the winner of the Kansas State-Wisconsin game in New Orleans. The Panthers' run of bad luck in March ends in the worst possible and most painful way.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The nation’s capital is John Marinatto’s happy place. The Big East commissioner can cozy into a seat here, confident that at least one of his Chosen 11 will advance to the Sweet 16. Three of the four spots here have been secured by the bid-hogging conference.

Those are some good Sweet 16 odds.

No. 8 seed Butler (24-9) vs. No. 1 seed Pittsburgh (28-5), 7:10 p.m. ET (TBS)

What to watch: The boards. Butler was able to defeat Old Dominion in part because the Bulldogs were able to beat the Monarchs at their own game: out-rebounding the nation’s fourth best rebounding team. Their reward is a matchup against Pittsburgh, a team that averages 50 rebounds a game -- second in the nation.

Who to watch: Andrew Smith for Butler will be a key against Pitt just as he was against ODU. The one-time passive sophomore, who had to be urged to take over by his teammates, had 11 points and six rebounds and the critical tip to set up Matt Howard for the winner. He’ll have to be every bit as active against a very physical Pittsburgh team.

For the same reason, Pitt’s Gary McGhee will be every bit as critical for the Panthers. The big man deserves far more credit than he ever receives but he could get his due here. McGhee’s ability to control the inside against Howard and Smith, plus work the boards, will be a huge key for the Panthers. He averages 7.7 rebounds and 6.9 points.

Why to watch: En route to their Final Four run a year ago, Butler knocked off a No. 1 seed from the Big East. It was a different round (Sweet 16) and a different team (Syracuse), but the parallels are nice.

More than the unrelated history, of course, is the fact these are two similar teams. Both like to defend. Both like to rebound and both refuse to cede an inch on the toughness meter.

This has been billed as a terrific game and should play that way.

What they’re saying: "They’re definitely similar to us. They’re a spitting image, almost. Both teams are very tough, play very good defense and rebound.’’ Ashton Gibbs on Butler.

“It’s great to still be going, but my mindset this morning when I woke up, I was thinking about breakfast. That was about it. I moved on.’’ Howard on whether he took time to enjoy his game-winning shot against Old Dominion.

Of note: Butler has had a first-round draft pick more recently than Pittsburgh. Gordon Hayward went ninth last year to the Utah Jazz. The last Panther? Vonteego Cummings in 1999. … McGhee and Howard played in the same conference on rival teams growing up in Indiana. Howard played for Connersville and McGhee at Highland Senior. … Gibbs and Shelvin Mack played together and for Jamie Dixon on the Under-19 USA Team at the FIBA Championships this summer.

No. 6 seed Cincinnati (26-8) vs. No. 3 seed Connecticut (27-9), 9:40 p.m. ET (TBS)

What to watch: Contrasting styles at work in this game. Connecticut relies on its backcourt -- wisely, I might add -- while Cincinnati’s strength lies on the inside. UConn is much happier getting out on the break and Cincy prefers to bang bodies and play more physically.

The Huskies have decent, if not dominant, players on the inside and the Bearcats have good, if not Kembaesque, guards.

Who to watch: Alex Oriakhi will have to stand his ground against the immovable force that can be Yancy Gates. The sophomore needs to control Gates when the Bearcats have the ball and somehow clear some space for Kemba Walker & Co. to work on the offensive end. When the two teams met during the regular season, Oriakhi was an ineffective 1-for-5 while Gates had 14 points. The Huskies won, however.

Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon will have the unenviable task of containing Walker, but also will have to look out for Jeremy Lamb, who has been sensational in the past six games. The freshman is averaging 14.5 points per game. Wright and Dixon are quick enough to keep up with Walker and Lamb but need to be disciplined.

Why to watch: Familiarity is a rare commodity in the NCAA tournament. Most coaches spend the day between games frantically cramming about their upcoming, and usually unknown, opponent.

These two teams know each other quite well.

Typically the selection committee tries to avoid league matchups until the regional finals, but with 11 Big East teams in the bracket, the committee clearly threw its hands up in exasperation early. Hence, the Bearcats and the Huskies meet in the first weekend.

What they’re saying: "We know we’re in for a tough grind. They’re the type of team that’s bothered us this season because of their physicality." -- UConn coach Jim Calhoun on Cincinnati’s contrasting style.

"When I was with Coach Huggins, we had great teams but the question was always, Cincinnati is good but how good are they because they play in Conference USA. You don’t have to worry about that any more. They say a bullet tells the truth. The Big East Conference tells the truth." -- UC coach Mick Cronin

Of note: In the only meeting between the two teams this season, Connecticut won 67-59 on the road. … Calhoun apologized for insinuating that Mick Cronin was the Big East coach who did not vote Walker conference Player of the Year. “It’s all cleared up. We had a good conversation. … I said maybe they didn’t vote for him or something and I shouldn’t have said that and I did. So I called Mick to just let him know that."

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mick Cronin acknowledged the elephant in the room, stared the pesky pachyderm right in the face and admitted what he was up against.

It was October and Cronin hadn't coached a single basketball game yet this season but already he knew what was at stake.

“Once you get to Year 3, there’s pressure,’’ he said in the middle of Big East media day five months ago. “That’s the reality of this job. In this league, you come in with all of these Hall of Fame coaches, you’re under pressure to win. You’re crazy if you think you’re not.’’

Cronin is a ways from walking step for step with the Hall of Famers but at least he can finally hold his head up on his alma mater’s campus.

Cincinnati has gone from oh-fer the tourney under Cronin to NCAA winners after the Bearcats topped Missouri, 78-63, for their first tournament win since 2005.

[+] EnlargeMick Kronin
Brad Mills/US PresswireMick Cronin and the Cincinnati Bearcats are looking to be a force in the Big East this season.
Cincy will get a familiar opponent on Saturday, squaring off against fellow Big East foe, Connecticut.

Missouri, once ranked as high as No. 8 in the country, slinks out of the NCAA tournament after completing an undistinguished season with a forgettable loss.

“This is huge for us,’’ Cronin said. “We’ve fought all season long for respect. A lot of my friends picked against us in this game and I understand that, but we’ve got guys who have fought all year.’’

Once criticized for all of the things he is not -- namely the entertaining and high-wattage personality of his predecessor, Bob Huggins -- Cronin now can be celebrated for what he is: deliberate and patient. He has deftly handled this team as he has handled his entire career at Cincinnati, aware that there is little time to waste but understanding that nothing happens quickly.

Before this program could win again, he would have to get it out of an academic quagmire. Before this team could be successful, he would have to get the house in order.

Cronin took care of the first step slowly. He edged Cincinnati from the brink of academic probation by recruiting four-year players who might not get him the quick wins of the one-and-done players, but would stabilize his program. The result: All but one of his players has graduated.

As for the second step, he got his team together in February. Cronin benched Cincinnati native Yancy Gates against Pittsburgh and used him only sporadically against DePaul and St. John’s.

The Bearcats lost two of those three.

He said on Wednesday that the decision wasn’t a risk, that he “spells love and discipline the same way.’’

But had the decision backfired, had Cronin lost Gates forever, he could have lost his job too.

Instead Gates responded and has scored in double figures in every game but one since that critical juncture.

“I think that did fuel me,’’ Gates said. “When I was going through that, a lot of people started counting me out. I was even reading things that my career was over. I kind of laughed at that stuff but that stuff really fuels a player.’’

The fuel continues to flow through March.

Gates was simply too everything for Mizzou -- too big, too powerful. He banged the undersized Tigers down low to the tune of 18 points and 11 rebounds, his offensive confidence so high he even drilled two 3-pointers.

“Worst thing that ever happened,’’ Cronin joked.

And now the Bearcats move on to a familiar opponent, facing Connecticut a team they actually finished above in the Big East standings.

It is yet another proving ground for a team that still feels like it has something to prove.

Cronin has chased the elephant out of the room. Now it’s time to get rid of the doubters.

“I’m not a Hall of Fame coach, we don’t have any all-league players, so I understand why people think the way they do,’’ Cronin said. “We’re just trying to win games and earn respect.’’
WASHINGTON D.C. -- A quick look at Cincinnati's 78-63 win against Missouri from the Verizon Center.

Overview: The Bearcats dictated the tempo and the game. Cincinnati relied on the inside presence of Yancy Gates and Ibrahima Thomas but also trusted its backcourt of Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon to handle Missouri's pressure. Meanwhile, the Tigers limped out of the NCAA tournament much like they limped out of the season. Missouri struggled to score, which means it couldn’t start its press, which equated to disaster.

Turning point: Mizzou failed to hit a field goal in the final 7:25 of the first half and Cincinnati took advantage. The Bearcats easily picked apart the Tigers’ halfcourt defense, turning a tight game into a 39-28 advantage at the break. Though Missouri made it interesting in the second half -- cutting the deficeit to six points -- the Tigers could never overcome their early inefficiency.

Key player: Cashmere Wright handled Missouri’s pressure -- when the Tigers were able to apply it -- and directed the offense inside. Wright dished out six assists to just three turnovers, to go along with 11 points.

Key stat: Cincinnati committed only nine turnovers, a critical number against the Missouri pressure.

Miscellaneous: Cincinnati won its first NCAA tournament game since 2005 when Bob Huggins was head coach. ... Simple game to figure out: Missouri’s fastest 40 minutes is predicated on pressing. You can’t press if you can’t score or shoot and the Tigers struggled to do both.

What’s next: Welcome to the Big East tournament Part II. Here on Georgetown’s homecourt, three of the four teams in play on Saturday will be from the Big East now that Cincinnati advances to meet Connecticut. The two played one another just once in the regular season, with the Huskies winning, 67-59.



WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A quick look at Connecticut’s 81-52 win against Bucknell.

Overview: Kemba Walker didn’t have to be a hero or the Sherpa carrying the Huskies. Against a physically undermanned Bucknell team, Connecticut played its first walkover game in nearly a week. The Huskies just had too many players -- and more specifically too many good players -- for the Bison to handle.

Turning point: More of a matter of time than a turning point but technically this game broke open midway through the first half when Bucknell went seven minutes without a bucket. UConn lead went from 27-20 to 39-20 in that span.

Key player: Community effort for a change for the Huskies. Three guys scored in double figures but of course Walker did even more. He just missed a triple-double with 18 points, 12 assists and eights rebounds.

Key stat: 16. That’s how many field goals Bucknell made, shooting a dismal 31 percent from the floor.

Miscellaneous: What was Walker doing on the court with the Huskies up 40 late in the second half? Or any of the starting UConn players for that matter? … Walker set a Connecticut record with 12 assists, the most by a Husky in NCAA tournament play and the most by a Big East player in the past 15 years.

What’s next: The Huskies continue their marathon through March, with a Saturday date against either Missouri or Big East foe, Cincinnati. UConn is 6-2 against the Bearcats and 1-0 against Mizzou. The Huskies and Tigers played one another in the Elite Eight in 2009. UConn won, 82-75 in what was then freshman Walker’s coming-out party. He had 23 points.


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A quick look at Pittsburgh’s 74-51 win over UNC Asheville.

Overview: UNC Asheville threatened to continue the afternoon’s run of wild games and upsets but the Bulldogs couldn’t pull the ultimate upset. Pittsburgh eventually proved too tough, especially on the glass, and kept alive the NCAA tournament’s perfect streak for No. 1 seeds.

Turning point: Up only 32-29, Ashton Gibbs drained a 3-pointer, igniting a 10-0 run for Pittsburgh. Though the Bulldogs refused to go quietly, that distance proved enough to allow the Panthers to ultimately exhale and advance.

Key player: Gibbs. Overshadowed in the loss to Connecticut thanks to Kemba Walker’s buzzerbeater (he had 27 in that game), Gibbs got his spotlight back here. He scored 26 points on 9 of 17 shooting, torching UNCA from the outside, where he was 6 of 10.

Key stat: The Panthers owned the Bulldogs on the glass. They had a critical 44-24 advantage that allowed Pitt to overcome a sluggish start.

Miscellaneous: Matt Dickey’s run in the NCAA tournament might be over, but the UNC Asheville junior made a few fans along the way. The guard plays like he believes no one can guard him and he’s not entirely wrong. Dickey had 21 points in the losing effort. … It goes without saying that Pitt is going to have to play a lot better in its next game. Butler, the Panthers' next opponent, plays terrific defense and won’t give Pittsburgh anything.

What’s next: The Panthers will meet Butler on Saturday. Plenty of people have circled this as a potential upset pick and it’s not a crazy thought. Both teams play great defense and have on-court and NCAA experience. Should be an entertaining one.

Right place, right time for Butler

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
4:42
PM ET


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Matt Howard glanced up at the Verizon Center scoreboard after the final buzzer, he saw a familiar friend.

The number 60.

Along the way to basketball infamy last season, Butler adopted a simple mantra: First team to 60 wins.

It took the Bulldogs within a fraction of an inch of a half-court shot to a national championship.

There is a lot of time and distance to cover between now and Houston, but the Bulldogs have taken the first step on the road: Butler 60, Old Dominion 58.

The one-time Cinderella turned mid-major power won the game on the most improbable of shots -- a would-be disaster that could have fallen apart three different ways but instead slipped quietly through the net just as the buzzer sounded.

Was it karma?

“Nah, I don’t know if it’s that,’’ Andrew Smith said. “This is sort of how we’ve been winning games all year.’’

It would be an insult to the basketball intelligence Butler showed to simply say the basketball gods chose to smile on the Bulldogs in the final seconds. They advance to meet either Pittsburgh or UNC-Asheville not because they were lucky, but because they were smart.

“That was high-level, high-level IQ,’’ Butler coach Brad Stevens said.

With the score tied and the shot clock dwindling down, Shawn Vanzant drove to the right of the hoop. Before he could get in a shooting position, he fell.

He wasn’t sure if he stepped on someone’s foot or if he slipped. Regardless, instead of simply falling and bringing the ball down with him, the senior threw it high up in the air in the direction of the hoop.

It soared near the head of the 6-11 Smith and the sophomore, as he did the entire game, swatted at it to keep the play alive.

“I was trying to tip it in, but that didn’t happen,’’ said Smith, who finished with six rebounds.

The ball fell into Howard's hands. The senior is blessed with oven mitt-sized hands. Throw something within 16 feet of him and he’s likely to grab it.

He grabbed the ball off Smith’s tip and laid it into the basket for the win.

“Drew really made that play,’’ Howard said. “I was just in the right place at the right time.’’

Which sounds a lot more simplistic than it is. Stevens’ players are always in the right place at the right time.

The Bulldogs have never been a team of overpowering physical ability. They have plenty of talent. Gordon Hayward wasn’t a first-round draft pick by accident and plenty of rosters would welcome Howard and Shelvin Mack with open arms.

But beyond their skill it is the Bulldogs’ basketball IQ that separates them. They play well and smart.

How certain was Stevens that his team knew what it was doing? He had three timeouts in his hip pocket in the final seconds and didn’t even think about calling one.

“They change their defenses all the time, so it would have been a waste anyway,’’ he said. “We just called a play. I let them go. I trust them.’’

No, the karma isn’t that Butler won on a crazy shot.

The karma is that the Bulldogs won on a rebounding play. Old Dominion came into the game ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding margin.

In order to beat the Monarchs, Butler knew it would have to hang with them on the boards.

So what did the Bulldogs do? They beat ODU in rebounding, 32-29.

And they did it just as they executed the last play, by keeping the ball alive, refusing to cede the rebound until someone wrapped it up.

“It’s not how we drew it up but I knew if I could just get the ball toward my big guys, they’d have a chance,’’ Vanzant said.

A chance to get the game to 60.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Here’s a quick look at Butler’s 60-58 win Old Dominion in the second round of the NCAA tournament from the Verizon Center.

Overview: Cue the music. We have our first ridiculous shining moment, a buzzer-beater extraordinaire that keeps last year’s Cinderella alive.

Turning point: Shawn Vanzant’s frenetic fiasco turned into pure art for Butler. The guard’s drive in the final seconds went haywire as he slipped but the ball bounced high enough that Andrew Smith was able to tip it and keep it alive. The ball fall softly into Matt Howard’s hands and the senior put the ball back as the buzzer sounded for the win.

Key player: Howard. He wasn’t the highest score on the floor but he was easily the most critical. The senior was everywhere, most critically in the right spot in the last seconds. He scored 15, grabbed five rebounds and dished out two assists.

Key stat: In order to win this game, Butler had to keep up with Old Dominion on the boards. The Monarchs came into the game fourth in the nation in rebounding margin. Not only did the Bulldogs keep up, they beat ODU at its own game. Butler ended up with a 29-27 rebounding edge.

Miscellaneous: Smith is already a good player for Butler. He could be a great one by the time he’s done. Smith has a sweet jump hook and is tough to move around in the post. He took a nasty hit with five minutes left, leaving the court with a cut near his right eye. ... The Bulldogs got some big minutes from junior Garrett Butcher. The sub, who averages just 1.6 points per game, scored six and grabbed five critical rebounds.

What’s next: Butler will meet either top-seeded Pittsburgh or No. 16 UNC-Asheville on Saturday here at the Verizon Center.

A look at the evening action set for the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.:

Connecticut vs. Bucknell, 7:20 p.m. ET

What to watch: The gas level in Connecticut’s tank. The Huskies, as the entire basketball universe by now knows, played (and won) five games in as many nights last week in New York City. In the past, such a run in the Big East Tournament hasn’t boded well for the victors -- Syracuse was ousted in the first round and Pittsburgh in the second after both won four games in four nights. On the flip side, the Bison, winners of 23 of their past 25, haven’t had to play a game since March 11.

Who to watch: Gonna go with Kemba Walker here. Though Pittsburgh is the top draw here by seed, no single player will be more watched than Walker. His yeoman’s effort to take Manhattan will long be the stuff of legends. Now the question is, can he take it a step further? Bucknell’s Mike Muscala is a 6-11 big man compared to Jeff Foote of Cornell from a year ago. Only a sophomore, he earned Patriot League player of the year honors after topping the 20-point mark nine times this year. He could be a handful for Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu down low.

Why to watch: In 2005 the Bison entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 14 seed and pulled off one of the all-time shockers: beating No. 3 seeded Kansas in the first round. Who says lightning can’t strike twice? Connecticut has lost just once in the first round under Jim Calhoun -- that was in 2008 -- but Washington D.C. is the site of the Huskies most infamous NCAA defeat. It was here in 2006 that George Mason upset the No. 1 seed in the Elite Eight en route to its improbable Final Four run.

What they’re saying: “Like our coach said, Bucknell doesn’t just come to the tournament to enjoy the ride. We come here to win games." -- Bucknell big man Muscala.

“We all know our roles. Not everyone can score 30 points a game. That’s Kemba’s role." -- Connecticut’s Alex Oriakhi on handling the attention devoted to Walker.

Of note: Walker said on Wednesday that one of the biggest benefits he received this season was working with the USA Basketball team. As part of the USA Select Team, Walker trained against the team before it traveled to the World Championships. Walker, defended by the likes of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, said, “they guarded me like nobody ever guarded me in my life.’’… Freshman Cameron Ayers, son of current NBA assistant coach Randy Ayers and brother of one-time Notre Dame player, Ryan, has 38 points and 13 rebounds during Bucknell’s run to the Patriot League title.

Cincinnati vs. Missouri, 9:50 p.m. ET

What to watch: Mizzou hasn’t been very good defensively all season but its frenetic style could upset the Bearcats’ comfort zone. On the flip side, Cincinnati has been rock solid defensively all season, their bruising and brute power holding teams to just 59.2 points per game.

Who to watch: How Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon handle the pressure from Mizzou will be key for the Bearcats. As a team, Cincinnati averages 14.5 turnovers per game, a number they have to keep in check in this game. Kim English's recent performance has coincided with the Tigers’ late slide. He is just 9-of-37 in his past five games. Missouri needs English to be a legitimate threat and a productive scorer to get its game back in order.

Why to watch: The slumping Tigers, who have lost four of their past five games, were ranked as high as eighth in the country. This team isn’t your typical No. 11 seed. Missouri can be either disruptive or disastrous on the defensive end and depending on which team shows up will dictate how this game goes. Cincinnati, on the other hand, rides a late-season push back to the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats won five of their last six to secure a bid.

What they’re saying: “Being here is big for me. I’m from Cincinnati and when I was recruited there people thought I’d be the guy to take them to the NCAA Tournament. It went from that to people saying my career was over. I got booed in my gym and now everyone is smiling at me in my home gym.’’ -- Yancy Gates on his roller coaster ride to the NCAA tournament.

“At this time of year, everyone’s record is 0-0. What you’ve won, lost, your ranking, all of that doesn’t matter. It’s about survive and advance.’’ -- Marcus Denmon on weathering Missouri’s late-season slide.

Of note: Cincinnati has not lost to a non-conference opponent all season. The Bearcats are 13-0 against non Big East teams. … The West Region has been kind to Mizzou. The past two times the Tigers were pushed toward the West Coast, in 2009 and 2002, Missouri rolled to the Elite Eight. ... In 2002, the Tigers were an unheralded 12 seed.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- They are used to filibustering here. They are used to the endless conversation to delay the inevitable.

Unlike in politics, eventually the talk stops in basketball and the games begin.

The prognostications, what-ifs and should-haves give way to the expected or sometimes, even better, the unexpected results.

So it is a rare, but welcome, time here in our nation’s capital -- a time to stop talking and start the action.

Butler vs. Old Dominion, 12:40 p.m. ET

What to watch: Can Old Dominion’s defense contain what has, at least lately, been a hot-shooting Butler team? The Monarchs aren’t pretty nor do they try to be. There is no such thing as a bad shot for ODU. Instead every shot is an opportunity for a rebound for a team that ranks seventh in the country on the boards. But if the Monarchs have an Achilles heel it is guarding the arc and the Bulldogs have been very good there. Butler is averaging 7.4 3-pointers over its past nine games (all wins). If the Bulldogs get hot, Old Dominion won’t have the offense to keep up.

Who to watch: For Butler, it’s Matt Howard. The Bulldogs need Howard on the floor. He’s fouled out four times this season and been on the precipice, saddled with four fouls, eight other times. With an active rebounding team like ODU, Butler can not afford to have Howard, who leads the team with 7.8 rebounds per game, as a spectator.

Old Dominion’s go-to guy is Frank Hassell. The senior, the guts of the Monarch team, almost averages a double-double -- 15 points and 9.6 rebounds -- each game.

Why to watch: Plenty of people would have picked either of these teams as a first-round upset specialist. Now someone will be eliminated. No one’s head is going to be turned by the glitz of the tournament here. Both teams are experienced -- the Monarchs start four seniors and a redshirt junior and Butler has five players who have appeared in at least seven NCAA Tournament games -- so this should be a well-played game between two worthy opponents.

What they’re saying: “Yeah, I’m the youngest. I’m 21. Ben [Finney], he’s 28.’’ Old Dominion redshirt junior Kent Bazemore joked about the experienced Monarchs, who start four seniors.

“We’ve talked about it a lot, but our message is we’re trying to live up to the standards of our program.’’ Butler coach Brad Stevens said on the challenges of living up to the expectations from last year’s national final run.

Of note: Four years ago, Butler and Old Dominion squared off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs scored the 57-46 victory. ... Butler coach Brad Stevens is a new NBA fan thanks to Gordon Hayward. “I ordered the NBA League Pass for the first time in my life. I’ve watched more Utah Jazz games than I have in my entire 33 years combined before this.’’

UNC-Asheville vs. Pittsburgh, 3:10 p.m. ET

What to watch: Everyone is wondering how much energy Connecticut will have after five games in five nights. How about UNC-Asheville? The Bulldogs went to overtime against Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday night, caught a midnight charter from Dayton to Washington D.C., and got to their hotel at 2:30 AM. Team breakfast, more like a brunch, was served at 11:30. The Panthers, meantime, haven’t played since Kemba Walker broke Gary McGhee's ankles in the Big East Tournament. You’d have to think with that loss marinating for a week the Panthers will be ready.

Who to watch: Overshadowed in the tough loss to Connecticut at the Big East Tournament was Ashton Gibbs' ridiculous performance. The guard was 10-of-13 from the floor and 6-of-7 from 3-point range for 27 points, an eye-opening, dazzling night in normal circumstances. Walker just wasn’t normal. For Asheville, Matt Dickey already is a YouTube hero, his buzzer-beating 3-point winner against Coastal Carolina now a shot saved for posterity. He is, however, more than a one-hit wonder. The junior scored 22 in Asheville’s OT win against Arkansas-Little Rock in the First Four.

Why to watch: Well, you never know. Someday, somewhere, some No. 16 team is going to pull off the ultimate Cinderella moment. Would you want to miss it if this was that moment?

What they’re saying: “Once you achieve a certain level, satisfied should never enter into the equation,’’ Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said about his team’s hunger to get over the hump and reach the Final Four.

“Do we have to play perfect to beat a No. 1 seed? I don’t know. We can have perfect attitude, perfect effort. I read a book once that said golf is not a game of perfect. Well neither is basketball. We’re going to make some mistakes out there but let’s get those in proper perspective and see if we can win a big game here.’’ UNC-Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said on trying to do the impossible.

Of note: The albatross still hangs around Pittsburgh's neck. As successful as the Panthers have been in the regular season, they haven’t been able to cash in come March. The Panthers have made the NCAA Tournament for the past 10 consecutive seasons but have advanced beyond the Sweet 16 just once -- two years ago when they lost to Villanova in a buzzer-beating heart breaker during the Elite Eight. … Biedenbach’s basketball history is in North Carolina (he was the player of the decade at N.C. State for the 1960s) but his roots are in Pittsburgh. The steel city native grew up there, delivered the Pittsburgh Post Gazette as a kid, and annually cut school to sneak into Pittsburgh Pirates’ games and watch Roberto Clemente play. Only the pull of Press Maravich, an Aliquippa native and then head coach at N.C. State, lured him away.

SPONSORED HEADLINES