College Basketball Nation: Andrew Smith

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They are joined now, linked in this new Big East conglomerate that will start play next season.

And they are becoming so similar.

They are doubted. They aren’t feared at all.

Butler and Marquette have become synonymous with playing on the edge. It’s how Butler’s Brad Stevens and Marquette’s Buzz Williams coach.

Neither side tends to blow anyone out. Rarely does either get run out of a gym. Butler has had its moments this season, against VCU most notably. But they are more rare than common.

And so it was not surprising that, with a Sweet 16 bid on the line, this game -- like their meeting in Maui in November -- would come down to one final shot.

Butler couldn’t convert. Marquette won, 74-72.

“In our last eight games decided by one possession or less we’re 6-2,’’ said Williams. “We’re just good enough not to get blown out and not good enough to blow an opponent out. The quicker we can turn it into a fight, the better. If it’s a fight, then it’s going to be a one- or two-possession game.’’

The third-seeded Golden Eagles needed a Davidson turnover to get a second chance to win in the round of 64. Vander Blue made a driving layup to win that game, the same shot, though from a different side, that he hit to knock off St. John’s at Madison Square Garden to earn a three-way share of the Big East regular-season title.

“I think we’ve played more one-possession games than any team in the BCS,’’ said Williams. “We give too many teams extra possessions.’’

The NCAA tournament has mostly been kind to Butler since 2010. The sixth-seeded Bulldogs have experienced some incredible highs and one painful low -- until Saturday.

Two years ago, the Bulldogs beat a Pittsburgh team they should not have to advance. Two shots, not just one, didn’t go down in one of the most memorable finals in the past 10 years in a loss to Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010.

On Saturday, Stevens sat slumped in a chair outside the Bulldogs’ locker room, his head leaning back against a post. He was exhausted. He had seen the other side so often.

This is the cruelty of the NCAA tournament. You can have the unbelievable emotion one second only to feel agonized a moment later.

“The Pitt game was miserable for them, the Duke game was miserable for us,’’ said Stevens. “It all evens out over time. Our guys played really hard. We have nothing to hang our heads about. We ran into a team that played at a high level, especially in the second half.’’

Both teams made their share of mental mistakes to leave the game hanging on the final possession.

The final five seconds were about as harried as possible.

Marquette’s Davante Gardner had put the Golden Eagles up by four with four seconds remaining with a pair of free throws.

This happened after Butler’s Rotnei Clarke took a Marshall Henderson-like deep 3-pointer when he wasn’t closely guarded and the Bulldogs were only down two. The ball barely nicked the net.

[+] EnlargeVander Blue
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsMarquette needed all of Vander Blue's 29 points to beat Butler and advance to the Sweet 16.
Stevens said he had no problem with the shot since Clarke had done so much for Butler this season, and added that Clarke had a “neon-green light.’’

Then, for some reason after the Gardner free throws, Jamil Wilson attempted to block -- but ended up goaltending -- an Andrew Smith bucket to pull the Bulldogs to within 74-72 with two seconds remaining.

And then Marquette pulled a Davidson and messed up the inbounds pass. The ball went out of bounds; possession, Butler.

Down two, with two seconds left, Butler had a shot to tie or win.

Marquette did a great job preventing Clarke from getting the ball. Stevens said the play was on him. He had a play if Marquette went to a 2-3 zone and one if it went man. But the players didn’t recognize the defense and got confused.

Roosevelt Jones inbounded the ball to a leaning Smith, who stumbled, and hurled up an errant 3-pointer. Smith crumpled to the floor. His career over. Jones sat on the floor, too, before Williams helped him up after going through the handshake line.

Both teams were exhausted. Coming down the hallway to the locker room, Blue said he was sore. He was beaten up from a brutal game.

“If you don’t go at that team then they’ll hurt you,’’ said Blue, who finished with 29 points. “They play defense similar to Wisconsin. They’re not a shot-blocking team. You have to get to the basket and if you do you can be successful.’’

Blue said as Clarke’s 3-pointer was in the air, he had a flashback to the Maui Invitational game.

“I was like, ‘Please Rotnei, don’t make this one.’ I knew he was going to shoot it,’’ said Blue. “He’s a great player. But this is how we like it. Nobody ever panics, and it’s in our character, with all the hard work we put in this year. We wouldn’t like it any other way. We put it out there. There is something incredibly special about this team.’’

Williams amazingly still had energy after the game. He has had quite a week.

He got to Lexington and had to take his wife, Corey, to the hospital for what turned out to be appendicitis. He had two of his four children with him here in Lexington, but, luckily, had family with him to help. He spent Tuesday and Wednesday night in a Lexington hospital by Corey's bedside.

“My wife has been in the hospital in Lexington for over half our stay here,’’ said Williams. “It’s been a crazy, crazy four days in Lexington.’’

Corey was released from the hospital and is recovering. Williams was waiting to see if she could fly home Saturday night. His two boys, Calvin, 9, and Mason, 6, were with him past midnight by the locker room, wide-awake and thrilled to be going to a third straight Sweet 16.

Williams, much like Stevens, has a team that most doubt, yet never quits and plays possessions like they are valued commodities.

Butler is done for a season. Marquette is moving on. They will meet again in the Big East next season and the scripts will likely be exactly the same.

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Butler's evolution is complete.

The Bulldogs have gone from the Horizon to the A-10 to the new Big East starting next season. Along the way, they've played in two national title games.

They are no longer the cute underdog from Indianapolis.

"The Cinderella shoe doesn't fit anymore," Butler senior center Andrew Smith said.

Butler has the stature, the clout and the ingrained ability to withstand any challenge.

For Bucknell, beating Butler Thursday would have meant a great deal.

"They play in so many big games that they're not the type of team that's going to get rattled," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.

No, that wouldn't be the Butler way. Just ask Marquette, Indiana or Gonzaga this season. Sure, VCU got Butler out of whack in an early March loss, and Saint Louis did control the Bulldogs in winning three games against them.

This is not a team without flaws or the potential to lose control. But the program is in good shape.

This team has the ability to stick around in the tournament past this weekend after its 68-56 win against Bucknell at Rupp Arena.

Bucknell's NBA prospect, Mike Muscala, was forced into being a bystander at times, finishing 4-for-17 from the field and nine points. Had it not been for Joe Willman's 20 points, it wouldn't have been a game.

Smith is hardly discussed as an NBA prospect, yet he has been on the floor in winning situations against Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, Indiana's Cody Zeller and now Muscala. Smith had 16 rebounds and 14 points Thursday.

The Bulldogs wore the target well in the Horizon League when they were the primary draw. La Salle fans stormed the court after beating the Bulldogs in an A-10 game, a sign that Butler was coming of age.

Now -- in the NCAA tournament -- the Bulldogs have no issue with being the higher seed.

"It's fun, and we enjoy it," Smith said. "We always want to get everyone's best shot. It's fun for us. It makes us a great team."

Rotnei Clarke transferred from Arkansas and hadn't been part of a winning culture. He sat out last year and is playing in his one and only season at Butler.

He had never been on a team that heard its name called on Selection Sunday, let alone played in an NCAA tournament game. After the game, he described how cool this result was for him.

But what is unique is how much the Bulldogs reflect the demeanor of their coach, Brad Stevens, in close games.

They went from up seven to down six against Bucknell in the second half.

Did they fret? Hardly.

"It's calm, and it starts with our coach," Clarke said. "He's really calm, and he carries that over to us. We know we've been through big games and tough atmospheres. That got us through."

It always has for Butler. There are no more surprises. Butler is as much a part of the March landscape as any other team now. We expect it to survive and advance.

It was too bad the selection committee pitted these two programs against each other, because Bucknell also had the chops to advance in this field. But the Bison ran into a more formidable team and elite program.

"In the past, we've been Cinderella," Butler's Roosevelt Jones said. "Now we're the favorite and everyone is gunning for us. We're excited for it."

3-point shot: Keys to Miami's success

February, 14, 2013
1. If you’re looking for one of the main reasons for Miami’s surge to the top of the ACC, go back to when Shane Larkin arrived and the relationship between new coach Jim Larranaga and school president Donna Shalala. Larranaga said Wednesday that when Larkin got his release from DePaul (he credits Oliver Purnell for helping here), Shalala didn’t hesitate in getting Larkin into school just in time. Larranaga told Shalala that Larkin had come from a terrific family and was exactly who Miami needed to represent the program -- and what the Hurricanes needed on the court. Larkin may turn out to be the team’s MVP.

2. Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said Wednesday that the Tigers been in contact with the NCAA every week since August 2011, seeking information on developments with the Miami case, yet have no idea what will happen, or when. The NCAA refers to Missouri -- which hired coach Frank Haith from Miami in 2011 -- as Institution B; it isn’t in jeopardy of having anything happen to the school or the basketball program. Mizzou could, however, suffer collateral damage in this process if the NCAA tries to do anything to Haith. But Alden said again Wednesday what he has said many times: Haith has done everything the NCAA and school have asked. Mizzou clearly supports Haith.

3. Wednesday's most surprising result came in Indianapolis, where it is clear Butler can’t afford to lose Andrew Smith for any longer than this week. With the big man out due to an abdominal injury, the Bulldogs lost at home to Charlotte, which has quietly put together an 18-6 season. The 49ers' victory shook up the Atlantic 10 race, with Butler dropping back into a four-way tie in the loss column (three) behind two-loss Saint Louis and VCU. The A-10 is now officially the most jumbled of any high-level conference.

New league, same Butler

January, 9, 2013

PHILADELPHIA -- You could almost see the old-time members puffing out their collective chests back in October.

You want a piece of this, kid? Think your pretty Final Four rings have any sway here? This ain’t no Horizon League, buddy.

And so when the preseason Atlantic 10 polls came out, there was Butler, slated sixth -- behind Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Temple, VCU and UMass.

Feel free to chuckle at that stroke of genius now.

Yes, the Bulldogs made the jump from the Horizon League to the more challenging A-10. Yes, Butler played in the CBI a season ago while the Hawks were in the NIT.

Except this is Butler. Anyone been paying attention the past few seasons?

This league may not run through Indianapolis with the same annual detour as the Horizon, but it will certainly make it least a regular pit stop.

Butler made sure everyone knew that on Wednesday night when the would-be sixth-place finishers disposed of the favorites, 72-66 for its first A-10 victory.

It was gritty and feisty, hard-fought and, at times, nasty.

Butler’s way, if not The Butler Way.

"I’m really proud of how we stayed the course," coach Brad Stevens said. "They executed their plan to about a T, but we stayed the course. Nobody panicked."

You could say it is because Butler has been in big games, little games, big arenas, small gyms, hostile places, hallowed Hinkle and just about every other environment college basketball can create.

[+] EnlargeButler's Andrew Smith
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Smith, left, and Rotnei Clarke combined to score 52 of Butler's 72 points against Saint Joseph's.
You could say it’s because Andrew Smith reigns as the only player in the country with two Final Four appearances on his résumé. You could say its because Rotnei Clarke cut his teeth in the SEC.

Or you could just offer the simplest and cleanest explanation: Butler is good. And always will be so long as Stevens is at the helm.

Count against them with the same confidence you’d use betting against Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State or any other perennially solid programs.

New league, unfamiliar opponents, new scouting reports and yet the Bulldogs are the lone ranked team in the Atlantic 10 right now.

Opposing schools already hate them for it, too.

St. Joe’s students welcomed Butler to the A-10 with a chorus of boos. In plenty of the nation’s households the Bulldogs may be America’s sweethearts, but in opposing gyms they are the rich new kids on the block -- instantaneously despicable.

"I didn’t really hear them booing me until I was down on the baseline by them," Clarke said. "But I think that’s what you work for. That’s why you put in all the extra hours in the gym, so you can go on the road to tough venues, make big shots and quiet the crowd."

In the end this particular game didn’t come down to The Butler Way or anything so cerebral.

The Bulldogs had better players, two of them to be exact.

It’s not often -- or maybe ever -- that Stevens finds himself caught off guard. He has built a career and a reputation on a combination of lethal analytics and preparedness that a Boy Scout would envy.

Yet there was St. Joseph's Chris Wilson draining four 3-pointers in the first five minutes and C.J. Aiken knocking down three more in the second.

That wasn’t in the script. The two combined were 10-of-66 from the arc coming into the game, so applying good logic, Stevens elected to sag off of them defensively and concentrate more on Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, St. Joe’s two leading scorers.

"You pick and choose your spots, and for about 30 minutes I chose wrong," he said.

The bailout came in the form of Clarke & Smith, a company slightly more reliable than AIG.

Clarke, whose range is from the opposite basket in, has provided the offensive spark last season’s Bulldog team sorely missed. He spent his evening ducking, dodging, running around, through and over every sort of roadblock St. Joe’s set for him. When the game ended, you half-wished he had worn a pedometer.

It all added up to 28 points, including six from behind the 3-point arc.

With Clarke stretching the floor, his partner found open space under the rim. Smith knew he couldn’t jump with Ronald Roberts or C.J. Aiken so he didn’t even try. He made sure he kept his position and created space to get off his favorite hook shot.

He did it to the tune of 24 points.

For those keeping score, that’s 52 of the Bulldogs’ 72 points for Clarke & Smith.

"C.J. Aiken was the defensive player of the year in our league, and there was nothing he could do," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "They’re wonderful players."

And really that’s the essence of what makes Butler special.

Basketball isn’t rocket science, really. Good players win, and Stevens has a knack for finding them. Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and now Smith & Clarke.

How’d you like a piece of that?
PHILADELPHIA -- Here’s a quick look at Butler’s 72-66 victory over Saint Joseph’s:

Overview: Welcome to the Atlantic 10, Butler. Isn’t this going to be fun? To the rest of the nation, the Bulldogs are the plucky underdogs. Here, they are the hated and hunted big boys with the national brand name. Saint Joseph’s students actually booed the Bulldogs when they took the court -- borderline blasphemy anywhere else.

Butler got all it could handle and then some from a Hawks team hungry (borderline desperate) for a signature victory to bolster its NCAA résumé. The Bulldogs ultimately won because they had the better players -- two of them, to be exact. Andrew Smith and Rotnei Clarke did all of the offensive work for the Bulldogs, helping them to their first win in the A-10.

Turning point: With Butler trailing 56-54 in a game that was tight from the opening tip, Saint Joseph's forward Ronald Roberts tried for a highlight-reel reverse dunk on an alley-oop but clanked it. On the next possession, Clarke drained a 3-pointer. Butler (13-2, 1-0 A-10) never trailed again.

Key player: Split the difference between Clarke and Smith. They were the best players on the floor. Clarke threw daggers from outside and controlled the game from the point. Smith dominated in the paint, using his trademark jump hook.

Key stat: More like key number. It’s 52. That’s how many points Clarke (28) and Smith (24) combined for, doing all of the work for the Bulldogs to secure their first league win.

Miscellaneous: This was Butler’s first official Atlantic 10 game. The Bulldogs, who handed then-No. 1 Indiana its lone loss, were picked to finish sixth in the league. Saint Joe’s was the predicted winner in the preseason. … The game was the first sellout of the season for the Hawks (8-5, 0-1). … The last time the two teams met was 1941 at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Next game: The Hawks travel to Duquesne on Saturday; Butler visits Dayton the same day.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

1. Virginia Commonwealth. In my experience, Butler fans are not only some of the nicest people around, there's also eminently reasonable. By and large, each week I've ranked VCU above the Bulldogs, Butler fans have typically (not always, but typically) responded with some version of "I'm a Butler fan, but that's cool. That VCU team is good."

Call it the Pax Atlanta: This year, this league's two teams (at least to date) are also its two newest, recent products of conference realignment, 2011 mid-major Dance-crashing brothers in arms, with mutual respect for each other's young star coaches and greatly contrasting styles of play. That's the vibe I'm picking up, anyway, and it has been refreshing to see -- even after that victory over Indiana -- Bulldogs fans take a step back and look at just what this VCU team is doing and say, "Yeah, you know? They're really good too."

Because they are: After their latest offensive explosion against East Tennessee State -- in which guard Troy Daniels made 11-of-20 from 3, for 33 points and 10 rebounds -- this year's Rams team is mixing its typically fantastic ball-hawking defense (VCU forces both turnovers and pure steals at the highest rate in the country) with efficient, balanced, long-range offense. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and with A-10 play picking up, it's only going to get better.

2. Butler. What's most interesting about this Butler team to date is not that the Bulldogs are good. I expected that, and I was hardly alone. What's interesting is how Butler is good. To wit:

See? Butler has made a sudden and drastic shift, from a putrid offense with a stubborn defense to much more efficient scoring with a much more forgiving defense. The obvious culprits -- not that this is a bad thing, because man was Butler hard to watch last season -- are the additions of sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham in place of defensive specialist Ronald Nored and frustrating shooting guard Chrishawn Hopkins. But Andrew Smith has also taken his game to another level, Roosevelt Jones is a great glue type, and Butler is actually shooting the ball disproportionately better inside the arc than outside it. Perhaps the threat of Clarke and Dunham launching from range is as important as the execution. Whatever it is, it's working.

3. Temple. We discussed Temple -- or, rather, the reaction to Temple's Dec. 22 road win over Syracuse -- in great detail last week, so we won't spend too much time breaking the Owls down this week. Instead, a heads up: On Sunday, Temple travels to Kansas. If they win there, I will put the Owls No. 1 in next week's rankings. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, it would be awesome to see -- especially because it would give Canisius transitive-property bragging rights over both Syracuse and Kansas. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

4. Saint Louis. New Year's Eve was big for the Billikens in a couple of different ways. For one, guard Kwamain Mitchell made just his second appearance of the season after returning from a November injury, and with 29 minutes Monday was his first return to full-time duty. Oh, and there's this: Saint Louis beat New Mexico at home, 60-46. The game came just a couple of days after New Mexico fought hard for a win at Cincinnati (before Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh and got what might end up as one of the most impressive road wins of the season), so you could forgive UNM for being a little worn out with the road trip by the time they passed under the Arch. But no matter, that's a really nice home win for Jim Crews' bunch, one that should stand the test of time as it pertains to the NCAA tournament at-large picture. With Mitchell healthy, this team is a real A-10 title challenger. But we knew that already.

5. Saint Joseph's. The Hawks move back into the top five almost by default this week thanks to some of the second-tier teams' performances, but their own struggles (in addition to Xavier's) appear to have made the Atlantic 10 not quite as elite-deep as it appeared to be back when everyone was jocking St. Joe's in the offseason. The Hawks' issues have primarily come by being a bit soft on defense -- they neither force turnovers nor protect their own glass -- and their offense hasn't been good enough.

6. La Salle. After a second-half collapse, La Salle took an L at Miami on Wednesday, which isn't an incriminating loss: Even without injured forward Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes are really tough at home. So if you're willing to forgive La Salle its Nov. 18 home loss to Central Connecticut State (and I am, because it was Nov. 18) and are willing to dive into some of the Explorers' tempo-free numbers (you know it), you'll find an above-average offense led by senior Ramon Galloway, which is thus far carrying a below-average defense that gets, according to Synergy scouting services, absolutely shredded by opponents' pick-and-rolls. That play set has dragged down the Explorers' entire half-court defense (they do a nice job in transition, partially because they don't turn the ball over often on the other end of the floor), and could be one fruitful adjustment to make to start the A-10 season.

7. Dayton. So, I'm a little bit torn on Dayton's latest result. That result? A 63-61 overtime loss at USC. Why am I torn? Because on the one hand, USC is pretty objectively bad. On the other hand, USC has played a brutal nonconference schedule, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams have tended to pick up steam (especially defensively) as the season goes along, and you get the feeling that Dayton won't be the only team held to .79 points per trip on USC's floor this season.

8. Charlotte. Charlotte is shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The good news? Charlotte rarely attempts 3-pointers. So at least the 49ers are self-aware. Unfortunately, this has made their offense a bit one-dimensional, and despite the gaudy 12-2 record Alan Major's team is still barely scoring more than a point per trip overall this season. Meanwhile, its victory at Davidson remains the only real sign that this team is considerably better than it was last season. The A-10 campaign will tell us much.

9. Xavier. It will be interesting to see how we look back on Xavier's four-game late-December losing streak. Will it become part of a young-team-comes-together narrative? There's still plenty of time for that, after all, and no A-10 fan is willing to count out the Musketeers before conference play even begins. But my hunch is that this team just isn't all that good, at least not yet; it doesn't have any area of the game in which it really excels.

10. Richmond. The Spiders, on the other hand, have an identity: They score the basketball. Richmond's offense is still top-40 good, efficiency-wise, and the Spiders get after people on the defensive end, forcing opponents into a turnover on 24.4 percent of their possessions. But the defense is suspect in all of the other important factors, and while you can sing the praises of an efficient offense all you want, Richmond hasn't beaten anyone even remotely good (including George Mason and Davidson, the latter a home loss).

11. Massachusetts. Thus far this season, Massachusetts has scored .983 points per trip. It has allowed .990. This is obviously not a sustainable winning formula. But the Minutemen do have one thing in their favor: pace. Per, Massachusetts crams the third-highest number of possessions (adjusted for competition) into 40 minutes in the country: 74.6. You can see, with a guard as quick as Chaz Williams, why coach Derek Kellogg would want to get out and run. The problem is that UMass hasn't really guarded anybody, and shoots a lot of 3s despite knocking down just 30.2 percent to date. UMass fans seem convinced this team is drastically underrated here, but I'm not seeing it, at least not yet.

12. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies, at least, can knock down shots. Indeed, at 7-5 this may be one of the sneaky-underrated teams in the league right now. The Bonnies have three efficient senior guards going right now (Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley, who comes off the bench and has the highest offensive rating on the team) and 6-foot-8 junior forward Marquise Simmons has been especially effective on the glass, too. Last week, I made the comment that Mark Schmidt's team was especially generous to opposing 3-point shooters, and that at some point we had to consider that a flaw; as one commenter corrected me, that might not actually be the case. If opponents cool off a little bit, this team's defense won't look so questionable.

13. George Washington. George Washington is the opposite of St. Bonaventure: The Colonials' offense is ugly (.967 points per trip) but its defense is actually a top-50 unit, allowing just .899 points per trip thus far. I'll be interested to see if GW can steal a win at a bad Georgia team Friday night, and if so, whether our perception of the Colonials as a total low-end A-10 also-ran this season ought to change.

14. Duquesne. Back-to-back road losses are no big deal. Back-to-back road losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State mean you're probably not very good. (Anyone who has seen Penn State play is nodding his or her head while reading this.)

15. Rhode Island. The Dec. 27 game at Saint Mary's was never going to be a win, so it's not like the opinion of the Rams has changed much. And conference season is going to be tough. But it was good to see first-year coach Dan Hurley coax a few wins out of his rebuilding squad before league play begins.

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

December, 21, 2012
New week, new Big Ten power rankings, new No. 1. Let's dig right in:

1. Michigan: Indiana's loss to Butler Saturday -- and the fashion in which it came -- prompted some legitimate near-term questions for the Hoosiers. But it's not like Michigan only gets this spot by default. Quite the contrary. The Wolverines are 12-0, have an All-America-level point guard (Trey Burke) running a balanced, hyper-talented team, and as such play some of the most efficient offense in the country. Michigan has its weak spots on the defensive end -- it doesn't force many turnovers, for one -- but the Wolverines don't allow opposing offensive rebounds, and they don't foul. They're the real deal.

2. Illinois: It does not make me an Illinois "hater" (haterz!) to assume that the Illini will not finish above Ohio State and Indiana through the rest of the college hoops season. I mean, I'm ready to have my perceptions altered and all, but even at 12-0 the Illini haven't been playing as well on a per-possession basis as many of the teams now sitting below them in my rankings. And, you know, so what? John Groce's team is still shooting the ball well enough from the perimeter to keep all those attempts looking like the right strategy, and Brandon Paul is still playing well, and the Illini beat Butler on a neutral floor (cough, Indiana) and Gonzaga at the Kennel. I think Illinois is probably the fourth- or fifth-best team in the league by February. But right now, it would be a disservice to move Illinois any lower than this.

3. Ohio State. Nonconference games don't get much bigger than what the Bucks have on tap Saturday. Kansas comes to town. Why is this so important? For one, it's Kansas, a good, tough team that will push the Buckeyes to the limit (particularly on the low block, where Jeff Withey's height poses a major matchup problem). For another, Ohio State had just one other nonconference game of note this season, and it was at Duke -- a game the Buckeyes could well have won. Other than that, Ohio State has a pretty weak noncon schedule. Saturday's game is massive.

4. Indiana. Don't worry, Hoosiers fans: Indiana won't languish this low in the rankings too long. But there's nothing wrong with a little medicine right now. On Saturday, IU was outworked by a Butler team with a fraction of its talent. Cody Zeller was beaten up by Andrew Smith. Tom Crean was outcoached by Brad Stevens. The Hoosiers were outrebounded, outfought and outthought, and couldn't put away a team missing three starters to foul trouble in the final minutes of overtime. Zeller needs some physical help along the front line -- the arrival of Hanner Mosquera-Perea should be a step in the right direction there -- and the Hoosiers still need to shore a few things up on defense. They'll get there.

5. Minnesota. It's becoming a weekly routine for me: I dig around for some college hoops stats, I check in on Minnesota, I make sure they're still ranked No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding, I write as much in the power rankings. And so it is again this week, as the Gophers haven't played since last week's 13-point victory over a really solid North Dakota State team.

6. Michigan State. Thursday was tough on the Spartans. Right up until he unveiled that Duke T-shirt, MSU fans were still holding out a ton of hope that star recruit Jabari Parker would decide to take his talents to East Lansing. Instead, Parker passed, citing his positional similarity with Branden Dawson (a fair point). The good news: The Spartans you know are still a very good defensive team, and they rebound the ball on both ends of the floor. If they can cut down on turnovers -- particularly by not allowing so many possessions (13.9 percent) to turn into steals -- Keith Appling and company have a ton of potential. (Saturday's home date versus Texas should be a win, but beware that Longhorns defense.)

7. Wisconsin. It will come as no surprise for me to tell you that I base most of my statistical analysis -- i.e., the stuff I use to help me see the game, in addition to actually seeing the game (word to ESPN3 and Synergy Sports) -- on Ken Pomeroy's measures of per-possession performance. Currently, Wisconsin is ranked No. 16 overall. Much as it pains me to say this … that number is untrustworthy, even if it isn't quite as off as you might think. Wisconsin's four losses (at Florida, Creighton, Virginia, at Marquette) are all to good teams, and Bo Ryan's squad did put an utter beating on a decent Cal team. But we still haven't seen Wisconsin beat anyone really good. The Badgers have a ways to go yet.

8. Iowa. Hey, don't mind me -- just hanging out on the Iowa Big Ten sleeper bandwagon again. Oh, I'm all the way back on. Sure, sure: I was critical of the Hawkeyes after that loss at Virginia Tech, but that's because I didn't realize Virginia Tech was actually a really good offensive team (and that Erick Green was a legit All-America type this season). But after being somewhat dismissive, the Hawks swept their state foes (Iowa State and Northern Iowa) in back-to-back weeks. I already have Indiana fans telling me they're dreading opening the Big Ten season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on New Year's Eve. All aboard!

9. Northwestern. The Wildcats got a quality home win this week, beating Texas State 74-68 … wait a second … how do you only beat Texas State 74-68 at home? It's Texas State! (No offense to Texas State.) I'll tell you how: When your best player, guard Drew Crawford, is sidelined for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, you're bound to experience some difficulties pulling away from inferior teams. The Wildcats had a chance to stay in the middle of the Big Ten race this season, but that Crawford injury might be a killer.

10. Purdue. I maintain faith in Matt Painter's ability as a coach; indeed, he's probably already underrated, and at this rate will definitely remain so. The Boilermakers play good defense. They do not play particularly good offense. Surrounded by a young team and no real developed interior, one-time glue guy D.J. Byrd has tried to morph into a catch-and-shooter star. It hasn't worked. The lackluster loss to Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic last Saturday wasn't pretty, but it had nothing on the 47-44 loss to Eastern Michigan that preceded it. Yuck.

11. Nebraska. How offensively challenged are the Huskers? I could give you a handful of statistics, like their rank -- No. 251 -- in points per possession, or cite their paltry offensive rebounding and inability to get to the free throw line. Or I could tell you that Nebraska scored 38 points at Oregon last Saturday, or exactly 0.59 ppp. In the words of Jesus Quintana: laughable man.

12. Penn State. No jokes or Lebowski references here. We all knew the Nittany Lions were going to struggle without Tim Frazier, and that's what's happened. To wit: Last Saturday, Penn State had to battle to hold on for an overtime home victory against Delaware State. But hey, at least the Nittany Lions are battling.

3-point shot: Showcase games in December

December, 11, 2012
1. Arizona coach Sean Miller said during our ESPNU College Basketball podcast Monday that pushing off the big-time games in the non-conference schedule was key to helping develop the impact freshmen. While a number of teams were playing in November tournaments, Arizona's best games are in December. They had a potential tough road test at Clemson (passed with a win), followed by a monster showdown with Florida Saturday and then the Diamond Head Classic prior to Christmas with San Diego State, Ole Miss and Miami in the field. Meanwhile, Miami coach Jim Larranaga said Monday the 'Canes schedule this month will let them know how good they are in 2013. Miami already beat Michigan State at home and won at UMass, but still has to play undefeated Charlotte, the Diamond Head and scrappy La Salle before the ACC.

2. Butler coach Brad Stevens said Indiana is the best transition team in the country. He may be right and that's why the Hoosiers pose problems for the Bulldogs in Saturday's game in Indianapolis. Butler has a big in Andrew Smith to match up with IU's Cody Zeller. But the Bulldogs will have to stop the transition to have a chance. This game is part of the rotating series with Purdue and Notre Dame. I'd love to see Butler and Indiana have their own guaranteed neutral-site game in Indy every season. "If they ever want to do a home-and-home we'd be all ears,'' said Stevens. "But I understand that everyone has to do what's best for their program.''

3. I love Mark Hollis' innovative streak. Hollis didn't get enough credit for what he did in creating the Carrier Classic last season. He didn't hesitate to sign off on the Armed Forces Classic for the game in Germany last month. But the idea of playing four games at Cowboy Stadium is flawed. According to a number of sources, it would be extremely difficult for television to create the four windows to show the four games at once. Pulling off the television angles for all four games at the same time would also be extremely difficult. Then, of course, the issue of trying to configure how the fans of the eight teams have sight lines could also be an issue. I would never want to discourage Hollis from pushing the envelope. It was Hollis' idea for the 16-team Nike Classic in honor of Phil Knight's 80th birthday in 2017. If he can pull that off in Portland with the elite Nike schools then that would be a memory maker. I'm not sure this Cowboy Stadium example will be doable.

Here's what we learned on Saturday

December, 17, 2011

Saturday’s slate of games featured some surprising finishes. Teams were exposed. Others were discovered.

It was a tutorial on the unpredictable ebb and flow of the college basketball scene this time of year. Here are a few things I learned:

No. 1 Syracuse 88, North Carolina State 72

What we learned: The Orange aren’t just deep -- they're really good

Syracuse has been praised as one of the deepest teams in the country. The Big East power possesses a talented backup at every position. Sometimes, however, the “depth” tag suggests a team lacks individual talent. That’s not the case with the Orange. North Carolina State started strong but Syracuse didn’t panic. It just turned to its stars. Dion Waiters (career-high 22 points), Scoop Jardine (16 points) and Kris Joseph (21 points) led an SU squad that hit 56.5 percent of its shots. North Carolina State was up early and then -- Bam! -- the Orange snatched the game back. Even with a target on their backs as America’s new No. 1 team and a highly publicized investigation of a former assistant coach, they continue to operate like a team without any distractions. Cuse has survived every Bernie Fine development and overcome the obstacles on the floor. Can’t get overly excited quite yet about a team that just played its first road game, but the Orange seem to have it all right now.

No. 13 Florida 84, No. 22 Texas A&M 64

What we learned: Florida’s backcourt is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams

Well, the Aggies don’t belong anywhere near the top 25, judging by Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Gators. They can’t score. The Big 12’s worst scoring offense and worst free throw-shooting team couldn’t find the buckets to compete with Florida. Give UF credit for attacking early (opened the game on an 18-2 run), putting its potent offense to work and getting to the free throw line (30 attempts). The Gators are going to have trouble against bigger teams given their size disparity, but as Saturday’s game proved, opposing teams continue to have problems matching up against a team with their backcourt depth (three guards scored 16 or more, led by Kenny Boynton’s 22 points and his six 3-pointers). One question remains, though. Patric Young took two shots. You have to wonder whether he’ll become a more consistent part of Florida’s offense in SEC play. One thing is clear: When this team gets going, it’s a hard one to stop. There are still defensive concerns, but the Gators are going to compete in the SEC if they continue to produce this level of offense.

No. 7 Baylor 86, BYU 83

What we learned: Perry Jones can lead Baylor to a national championship

Baylor’s NCAA title hopes will be directly linked to its identity outside of Waco. The Bears were 1-3 away from their home floor during the nonconference portion of last season’s schedule. Those road woes followed the Bears into the Big 12 season. In a gritty game Saturday against a BYU squad that’s always tough on its home floor, Perry Jones III scored a career-high 28 points and played with the heart that’s expected of a star. After suffering a late knee injury, Jones checked back into the game and scored on a putback with 20 seconds to play that capped the win. Pierre Jackson blocked Brandon Davies’ 3-point attempt at the buzzer. BYU held a 13-point lead in the first half, but Jones kept the Bears alive in a hostile environment. He’s NBA-lottery good. We knew that before Saturday’s game, but since his return from an NCAA-mandated suspension at the start of the season, he’s looked like an NCAA championship-caliber leader, too.

Gonzaga 71, Arizona 60

[+] EnlargeElias Harris
AP Photo/Kevin P. CaseyGonzaga rode Elias Harris' 25 points to victory over Arizona.
What we learned: Gonzaga is not discouraged by early struggles, but Arizona might be

This was a significant game for a pair of teams that had dropped from the rankings in recent weeks as they failed to meet preseason projections. Both needed this game in Seattle. Gonzaga played like it understood the stakes. Arizona did not. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead to start the game, and Zona spent the rest of the contest trying to close the gap. But that early onslaught from Gonzaga set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Zags held off Arizona’s late charge that cut the deficit to 62-56 with 2:03 to play. The Wildcats’ leading scorer, Solomon Hill, went 1-for-7 and finished with six points, his second single-digit effort in three games. The fall continues for Arizona, an Elite Eight team last season but one that has lost four of its past seven games. Give Gonzaga credit, though. The Zags seemed motivated and focused, despite suffering their recent ups and downs. Saturday’s version of Elias Harris (25 points) should help Gonzaga in what should be an excellent WCC race with BYU and Saint Mary's. Hopefully, the 2-for-11 player who showed up for last weekend’s loss to Michigan State never returns.

UNLV 64, No. 19 Illinois 48

What we learned: UNLV is legit

With about 41 seconds to play in this game, Illinois' D.J. Richardson drove right in and went up for a dunk that wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But Quintrell Thomas swatted the shot like it mattered. Thomas and Mike Moser gave UNLV a combined 30 points with leading scorer Chace Stanback (2 points) struggling, as UNLV strolled into Chicago and locked up an Illinois team that came in at 10-0. The Runnin’ Rebels now have dropped a pair of undefeated, nationally ranked squads (North Carolina, Illinois), and their only two losses came against quality opponents on the road (Wichita State, Wisconsin). This Mountain West standout is legit. The Rebels can clamp down defensively. Illinois went 16-of-63 from the field (7-of-25 from the 3-point line). Surprisingly, Illinois didn’t feed big man Meyers Leonard (3-of-8) enough in the second half. During some stretches, Leonard’s teammates just missed him and settled for bad shots. Other times, however, Leonard couldn’t breathe with UNLV defenders swarming him.

No. 4 Louisville 95, Memphis 87

What we learned: Josh Pastner is still trying to figure out this team

Let’s start with giving Louisville credit. The Cardinals held off Memphis’ relentless pursuit, after watching their 13-point second-half lead become a 58-55 deficit. Behind Russ Smith’s career highs of 24 points and seven steals, Louisville pulled off a solid home win. But it also was another game in which Memphis baffled observers with its inefficient use of its immense talent. Will Barton is special (28 points, 16 boards), and he’s surrounded by a variety of highly skilled athletes. But that hasn’t been enough for the Tigers. Their four losses have come against quality opponents, but at what point will this group get over the hump? When will it stop playing in spurts and begin improving shot selection in tight stretches? Those are all key questions for Pastner going forward. He has some talented players on his roster. But getting all that talent to work together is still a challenge.

More observations from Saturday:

* No. 2 Ohio State stayed strong when Jared Sullinger left Saturday’s 74-66 victory over South Carolina with a foot injury, but you have to wonder whether the sophomore’s ailments will hamper him and the program the rest of the way.

* With Cody Zeller, who scored 21 points in Saturday’s 69-58 win over Notre Dame in Indianapolis, the No. 20 Hoosiers can compete for the Big Ten title.

* Both Mississippi State and Detroit proved they’re legitimate conference contenders during the Bulldogs’ 80-75 victory over the Titans. MSU is 11-1 now, while the return of center Eli Holman (12 points, 9 rebounds) increases Detroit’s potential of winning a Horizon League title.

* The Missouri Valley race will be the most competitive in the country. Indiana State’s 61-55 win at No. 25 Vanderbilt was just a reminder of the conference’s parity and talent. The Sycamores will compete with Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Missouri State in what should be a heck of a two months in the Valley.

* J'Covan Brown continues to keep 9-2 Texas afloat in the Big 12’s fringe contender conversations. He scored 23 points in a nice 77-65 victory over Temple.

* A game-winning tip-in with a second to play by Butler’s Andrew Smith helped the Bulldogs snap a three-game losing skid with a 67-65 win over Purdue. The Big Ten is really big this season, and Purdue lacks a consistent interior presence. That will create a variety of issues for the Boilermakers in conference play.

3-point shot: Stevens not sweating loss

November, 4, 2011
1. Butler coach Brad Stevens was as calm about losing to Northern State in an exhibition as he was falling to Connecticut. Stevens isn’t fretting anything yet. Chrishawn Hopkins was out with a concussion and Stevens said Hopkins will be critical to the Bulldogs’ backcourt this season. Hopkins’ concussion actually prompted Stevens and his staff to pause and review whether they were doing something wrong in practice or games since Matt Howard and Ronald Nored also suffered concussions over the past few years. But Stevens said they determined the injuries were just freak coincidences. The one consistent player for the Bulldogs was big man Andrew Smith, who scored 19. Smith should be and likely will be the Bulldogs’ go-to player.

2. Frustration is mounting at Arizona State where the Sun Devils still don’t know the status of highly touted freshman guard Jahii Carson. Carson didn’t participate in the Sun Devils’ scrimmage with Saint Mary’s last weekend as his academic eligibility is being examined by the NCAA. Carson is one of many players whose status is being held up. The 5-foot-10 Carson was supposed to be the difference for the Sun Devils in their attempt to climb out of the bottom of the league. Carson was the only high school player on this past summer’s Team USA Under 19 World Championship team in Latvia. Quite simply, if Carson doesn’t start practicing for the Sun Devils soon and ultimately play, this team won’t show progress in 2012.

3. The angst isn’t as palatable at Connecticut as the Huskies await the eligibility status of freshman point Ryan Boatright. But there is no question about his importance to this team. The Huskies desperately need Boatright’s change of speed to spell Shabazz Napier, as well as his scoring ability off the bench and his voice. Boatright may be the most vocal player on the squad. The NCAA is looking into whether Boatright received an extra benefit related to his AAU team. One source said one of the issues being looked at by UConn and the NCAA was who purchased a plane ticket for Boatright during his AAU career.

Butler win quite a ride for Northern State

November, 3, 2011
The bus ride from Butler back to Aberdeen, S.D., takes about 16 hours, and it’s about twice as long as any of the road trips Northern State usually endures. But even after having trouble sleeping after playing three games in as many days, Alex Thomas wasn’t complaining about the never-ending trek toward home -- not after hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Butler.

The Wolves were supposed to be sacrificial lambs in this exhibition game, but Thomas' 3-pointer at the top of the key lifted Northern State to a 53-50 win on Wednesday, stunning the two-time national runner-up at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The game didn’t count in the standings, but the Division II team’s emotional celebration made it difficult to tell.

“Right when it left my hands, it was a great feeling,” Thomas said. “We were going crazy. We stormed the court, jumping and hugging. In the locker room, the coaches were going crazy.

“One of the highlights of my life.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Thomas, Damonn Mischke and Jared Hannigan
Courtesy of Jacque Scoby/Northern State UniversityAlex Thomas (middle), student manager Damonn Mischke (top) and Jared Hannigan (bottom) share a "Hoosiers" moment.
Northern State is the place where in the last decade, Don Meyer became the all-time leader in coaching wins in NCAA men’s basketball history. Meyer accumulated 923 wins in 38 years before retiring in 2010, two years after a near-fatal car accident left him without a leg and led to a discovery of cancer.

Paul Sather, who coached under Meyer and succeeded him, now has a win that won’t show up on the coaching record, but will be an unforgettable one. The Wolves were 12-14 in his first season and picked 10th in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll. Last night, they went into Hinkle and lived out their “Hoosiers” fantasies.

“It was kind of surreal,” Sather said. “It was like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’

“Butler’s the kind of program we try to be like. They’re a program we would love to be like.”

Northern State is accustomed to playing on back-to-back nights, yet realized scheduling consecutive exhibitions against Northern Iowa, Purdue and Butler was going to be a difficult test for its preseason. Northern Iowa beat the Wolves by 18 points, and Purdue routed them by 32.

But a relatively inexperienced Butler team in transition following its national championship game loss to Connecticut played sloppily in its first contest and was primed for an upset. Northern State went into halftime tied and trailed by nine points with five minutes to play, but came back. Collin Pryor, who led the Wolves with 18 points, tied the game with back-to-back baskets with 52 seconds left. When Butler’s Andrew Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one, it gave Northern State the final possession of regulation.

The 6-foot-5 Thomas elevated over two defenders, got a clean look and made Butler pay. The fifth-year senior had redshirted during Meyer’s 29-win season in 2008 and went through a coaching change. The mere sight of Butler coach Brad Stevens was “a great experience” to Thomas. Now he was celebrating a shot that beat the Bulldogs, with the Wolves having improbably scored the game’s final 12 points.

“To make this shot in that environment on that stage, you couldn’t script it any better for him,” Sather said.

“Alex was the guy that was coming off bench most of his career. He fought and fought and continued to fight.”

Sather received a call following the game from Meyer, who recognizes a big win when he sees one.

“He called me disguised as an ESPN beat writer,” Sather said. “That’s him being funny.

“With that environment and the history and tradition there at Hinkle Fieldhouse, to get that kind of win, it hasn’t really set in yet.”
1. Drexel was picked to win the Colonial Athletic Association, a surprise to head coach Bruiser Flint and probably most everyone who follows the league. George Mason, even with a coaching change, was a fringe Top 25 team and yet the Patriots were selected second. Could Drexel come from America East and become the first team not from the state of Virginia or UNC Wilmington to win the CAA? Yes. Flint said the Dragons are more competitive in practice then he’s seen recently. But the Dragons will start the season without leading scorer, guard Chris Fouch, recovering from offseason knee surgery. Flint said he’s hopeful Fouch will be back by December. That puts pressure on the Dragons to avoid stumbling in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas so as not to hurt a possible at-large berth.

2. Butler was the pick to win the Horizon League again, barely over Detroit. But the telling info from the Horizon Leauge poll was that the Bulldogs had no one on the preseason all-league first team and only one (Andrew Smith) on the second. Meanwhile, Detroit had the player of the year (Ray McCallum Jr.) and two others on the first team (Eli Holman and Chase Simon). One problem for the Titans is Holman started the fall by taking a leave of absence due to personal issues. Still, if there was ever a year for Detroit to unseat Butler this is the season. Failing this season could be a significant psychological blow.

3. Nevada was picked by the WAC coaches to win the league, edging out New Mexico State. Utah State was third. Utah State has been the dominant team in the WAC, and it is finally going through a rebuilding phase. Utah State has been in the mix an at-large berth for years and fellow bubble teams have sweated out the WAC final. No need to worry this season. Nevada probably won’t have the résumé to warrant an at-large berth in its final season in the WAC before going to the MWC. This is a one-bid league.

Butler shoots itself in the foot

April, 5, 2011
ButlerBob Donnan/US PresswireRonald Nored, left, Shelvin Mack (1) and Butler shot just 18.8 percent against UConn.

HOUSTON -- Shawn Vanzant hung his head exiting the locker room, still unable to believe what a mess of a shooting night it was for Butler in the national championship game.

“Twelve-for-64,” the senior kept muttering as his teammates tried to console him.

One kissed Vanzant on the head, another told him it wasn’t his fault even as he claimed it was, and the senior walked out of Reliant Stadium after a 53-41 loss to Connecticut with a teammate's arm draped over his shoulder.

The Butler Bulldogs made back-to-back runs to the Final Four together, and together America’s underdogs licked their wounds after falling short for a second straight year.

“All the people that played feel like they let us down, and that’s ridiculous,” coach Brad Stevens said. “If someone has to go 12-for-64, these guys have the character to handle it.”

It won’t be easy for Butler to leave Houston without regrets and to make peace with the absolute worst shooting performance in the history of national title games. Butler shot 18.8 percent from the field for the lowest mark in a championship game and the lowest in any NCAA tournament game since 1946. The Bulldogs managed only three -- yes, three -- 2-point field goals.

[+] EnlargeButler's Matt Howard
AP Photo/Eric GayMatt Howard and Butler suffered a loss in the national title game for the second year in a row.
Shelvin Mack scored 13 points on 4-for-15 shooting, admittedly missing open shots. Shaggy-haired forward Matt Howard finished his storybook career with a 1-for-13 performance and a blood-stained right knee. Andrew Smith, the team’s 6-foot-11 center, scored the team’s first points in the paint on a putback with 6:13 left.

Vanzant, who went 2-for-10, was despondent over the 52 missed field goals. Many of them were easy shots, but Butler also credited a UConn defense that blocked 10 shots.

In the other locker room, freshman Jeremy Lamb leaned back in his chair and extended a long arm to demonstrate how his length might have bothered Mack. “If I’m off you, people think I can’t contest, but I can.”

The Huskies’ frontline was especially good, with 6-foot-9 Alex Oriakhi and 6-foot-8 Roscoe Smith blocking four shots apiece.

“UConn is the best shot-contest team we’ve played, and it’s not even close,” Stevens said. “They’re long. They’re athletic. They’re active. He [Huskies coach Jim Calhoun] had freshmen playing like seniors out there defensively.”

Stevens indicated that UConn disrupted them by using the Butler Way on defense: “Guard so hard so when they get looks, it’s not as comfortable.” The Bulldogs proceeded to go out with a clank.

After Chase Stigall hit a 3-pointer coming out of the halftime break to give the Bulldogs a 25-19 lead, they missed their next 13 shots over the next 6:46 while the Huskies went on a 14-1 run.

“Coach kept us calm until we realized it was going to be tough,” Andrew Smith said. “It felt like we weren’t supposed to win that game.”

Said Lamb: “I saw one time we scored, one of them put his head down. I said, ‘We got ‘em.’”

Butler (28-10) loses five seniors and possibly Mack to the NBA draft after once again capturing the nation’s imagination with an unlikely NCAA tournament run. The Bulldogs had reeled off 14 consecutive wins, including upsets of Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida, to get to the Final Four as a No 8 seed.

Not every fairy tale -- or even its sequel -- can have a happy ending. Stevens still found a way to give solace to his players, telling them his only regret was being unable to coach on Senior Day due to blurred vision.

“The title, the net, the net, the trophy would be nice, but you still have the relationships,” said Stevens, the 34-year-old bespectacled baby face.

“It’s really hard, but as I told ‘em, I don’t care if they make shots. I don’t love ‘em any less because we lost.”

Said Howard: “Right now, it’s frustrating. It’s tough, but I know you’ll look back at some point and be pretty proud. The team believed down the very end."

The Butler Bulldogs just simply missed.

Uconn/ButlerStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJeremy Lamb led UConn in the second half -- getting 12 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
HOUSTON -- Two years. Two storybook runs to the national title game. Two brutal, demoralizing finishes.

Butler's first run at glory ended with a just-this-close heave from Gordon Hayward. Instead, Duke took the title. This year, Butler's second chance at history was ruined by a score of misses -- 52 of them, to be exact -- as the Bulldogs shot themselves out of the mid-major record books and into the wrong kind of historical company in debilitating fashion.

The Connecticut Huskies are your 2011 national champions, winning 53-41 on Monday.

The Bulldogs' epic flameout will be the story of this game, of course. Butler's tale of back-to-back Final Fours -- both of which brutally ended without a title -- is too good to fade to the background. You can't shoot the worst field goal percentage in NCAA championship game history (18.8 percent) -- the third-worst in NCAA tournament history -- and expect to avoid the spotlight.

But it'd be a disservice to Connecticut to ignore the Huskies' story, to treat them as some sort of boring champion-by-default. UConn might not have the underdog angle, but its is a tale of defiant redemption and the power of brilliant individual talent -- a tale of Jim Calhoun and Kemba Walker -- and what can be achieved when a coach and his players meld the two.

Connecticut wasn't its usually brilliant self on the offensive end. Rather, the Huskies won this title with defense. They locked down the Bulldogs in the half court -- Butler shot 12-of-64 from the field, 9-of-33 from the 3-point line and 3-of-31 on 2-point attempts -- and even when UConn didn't challenge Butler's shots (and it usually did), the Huskies' supreme athleticism irrevocably broke Butler's offensive rhythm.

Simply put, no matter how good your defense is, you can't shoot as badly as Butler did and expect to win a national championship. Not when Walker and these Huskies are on the other side. Not ever. The Bulldogs never shot the ball well, but their second half was a special exercise in offensive frustration. With 12:29 left in the second half, Butler still had made only one 2-point attempt, a first-half hook shot by forward Andrew Smith. That's when guard Shawn Vanzant found enough room on a baseline inbounds play to knock down a 15-foot jumper. But Vanzant's next attempt was swatted by UConn forward Roscoe Smith, and the Bulldogs were right back to square one -- unable to find any easy shots against a longer, stronger and more athletic UConn team. The Bulldogs finished with three (three!) 2-pointers -- no one else in title-game history has had fewer than nine -- and a grand total of two points in the paint (UConn had 26), and that's your game right there.
Understatement alert: Butler did not shoot the ball well. And, yes, much of that offensive impotence was self-inflicted. But the Bulldogs have been a very good offensive team for much of the season and all of the tournament, and very good offensive teams don't just stop scoring points for no reason. In other words, Connecticut's defense deserves much of the credit for making everything so difficult for the Bulldogs.

Walker was quiet for much of the second half, but with 10 minutes left, he did what Kemba Walker does. Cutting to the rim, he received a bounce pass from Jeremy Lamb and finished with a beautiful floating layup that softly nestled through the nylon and gave Connecticut an 11-point lead. This performance wasn't vintage Walker -- he finished with 16 points on 5-of-19 shooting from the field -- but this season was all his, and this national title cements his legacy as one of Calhoun's greatest players.

No Butler player will have to apologize to his teammates. Or all of them will. Either way, the poor shooting was evenly dispersed across every starter (Matt Howard was 1-of-13, Shelvin Mack was 4-of-15, Vanzant was 2-of-10, Chase Stigall was 3-of-11 and Andrew Smith was 2-of-9) and reserve (Zach Hahn, Ronald Nored and Chrishawn Hopkins combined to go 0-for-6). It was just ... bad.

Strangely enough, this felt like Butler's one big moment, the time when the real-life Hoosiers comparisons came true, the culminating moment of a tournament -- and possibly an era -- defined by the unlikely mid-majors that barnstormed the Final Four. Instead, one of hoops' modern powers used its superior athleticism and talent.

Instead, the Bulldogs shot their way out of history. Instead, even as Butler slowly becomes a national brand -- and its coach, Brad Stevens, becomes a household name -- on the floor, where the only thing that counts is the final score, the sport's entrenched powers still reign.

Uconn/ButlerStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBoth Connecticut and Butler are shooting below 30 percent thanks to solid defense by both teams.

HOUSTON -- The court is a glistening pane. The stadium is a pristine artifice. The cheerleaders are smiling; the uniforms are cleanly designed. Everything in Reliant Arena is pretty.

Everything, that is, except the offense.

Instead, these two defenses were the story of the first half of the 2011 national championship game, as Butler and Connecticut played a slogging slugfest caused less by bad offense -- although there was plenty of that -- than flawless defensive rotations, great on-ball pressure, deflections and blocks.

Butler leads 22-19 at the half, and were it not for a last-second Shelvin Mack 3, the first 20 minutes would have ended with the score tied at 19.

The pertinent statistic -- 15-of-58 -- is not hard to locate. That's these two teams' combined first-half field goal mark. Why so bad? It's not just missed shots. The reasons:

  • Butler is everywhere on defense. The Bulldogs are challenging every inbounds play all the way out to half court, they're jumping on post possessions as quickly as possible and they're rotating to prevent Kemba Walker from gaining any advantage on ball screens.
  • The same goes for Connecticut. Butler's high-screen offense -- in which the Bulldogs run high ball screen after high ball screen at the top of the key and on the wing -- hasn't yielded anything, because Connecticut is doubling every screen. After that, the Huskies are rotating fast enough and using their superior length well enough to challenge Butler's outside shooters. Things haven't been any easier in the post. Butler forwards Matt Howard and Andrew Smith are yet to get a truly clean look at the basket. Connecticut's size has been too much thus far.
  • Perhaps the most interesting matchups to watch the rest of the game will be who guards Walker and Jeremy Lamb. Most expected Butler stopper Ronald Nored to spend most of his time on Walker, but for much of the half, Nored shaded the taller, lankier Lamb, and he effectively shut Lamb out of the game. Walker drew combined defensive attention -- Shawn Vanzant, Mack and Nored all took turns guarding him, and as above, Butler was quick to run second defenders at him on high screens. That Brad Stevens went with these assignments is both surprising and, well, not. The man always has something up his sleeve.

Keep an eye on the defensive adjustments on both sides going forward. These two teams have shot the ball poorly, but it's not necessarily about nerves or tight rims or simultaneous off nights. We're watching a thoroughly ugly game in a thoroughly pretty setting. But if you like comprehensive defense, there's nothing ugly about it at all.