College Basketball Nation: Shelvin Mack

Summer Buzz: Butler Bulldogs

August, 22, 2011
Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Butler.

Why do we love college basketball?

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Howard Smith/US PresswireCoach Brad Stevens must again mold Butler into a team that is better than the sum of its parts.
It's not just because crazy things can happen in the NCAA tournament. After all, crazy things can happen in every sport, and if the only reason you love college hoops is unpredictability -- if that love has nothing to do with the squeak of a sneaker on a freshly waxed floor or a well-oiled swing pass to a wide-open corner shooter -- then you can just as easily get your jollies from, say, roulette.

But insanity does play its role. As we saw in 2011, the craziness of March Madness -- in which not one, but two good-but-far-from-great mid-major squads somehow found themselves squaring off in the Final Four -- can out-crazy just about anything else in modern sports.

Consider the trajectory of Butler's 2010-11 season: The Bulldogs were essentially left for dead on Feb. 3, when a loss to laughingstock Youngstown State, the team's third in a row, made them 14-9 overall and 6-5 -- 6-5! -- in the Horizon League. Then, naturally, Butler ripped off 15 straight wins, including its first five NCAA tournament games.

For the second straight season -- this time much more miraculously than the first -- Butler got to the national championship game. Then, naturally, the Bulldogs put up one of the worst shooting performances in college hoops history and lost a stinker of a finale to Connecticut (a surprising national champion in its own right). Looking back, nothing about Butler's season, from the early struggles to the late tourney run to the composition of the Final Four -- Virginia Commonwealth! -- to the unfortunate and ugly final performance, was remotely predictable.

In other words, it's difficult to predict where Butler goes from here. Can Brad Stevens build his team's recent postseason shockers into lasting national status? Or is the inequality between schools from mid-major and BCS conferences too much to overcome? Will Butler maintain its excellence despite the loss of its three best players from the past two seasons? Or are the two-time national runners-up consigned to life as a historical footnote?

In the immediate future, it seems the Bulldogs are likely to struggle. But that doesn't mean we should write an ending to Butler's section in the college basketball almanac just yet.

Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard -- the alternating cornerstones behind the past two seasons' March glories -- are gone. We already saw how difficult Butler's life was in the post-Hayward era; without him the Bulldogs lacked a player that could consistently score against more athletic, taller defenders like UConn's.

Things will only get tougher without Howard and Mack. Howard was especially excellent as a senior. He expanded his outside game, cut down on his fouls and posted one of the more efficient seasons of any big man in college hoops. Mack took on the majority of Butler's scoring load, especially on the perimeter, and he was at his best in the most important spots, where lesser players would allow shooting woes or other struggles to consume their appetite for the ball. Howard was consistent and workmanlike; Mack was cold-blooded and brutal. And both were far more important than their numbers reveal.

Howard won't be easily replaced, but the Bulldogs do have some frontcourt pieces that could come close. First is center Andrew Smith, who shone in his sophomore season with a brilliantly efficient performance in limited attempts. He will have to get better at creating his own offense in the post, not being able to rely on weak-side defenders who collapsed on Howard. But his size (6-foot-11) and interior skills give him a huge advantage in the Horizon League, which often lacks true centers with Smith's frame.

The other is sophomore forward Khyle Marshall, who entered Butler last season as one of the highest-ranked recruits ever to choose Butler. Marshall is a 6-7 forward with an array of talents, chiefly his athleticism. He could be a breakout star as soon as this season. Whether you play in the Horizon League or the Big Ten, that frontcourt tandem is an enviable quality. (Just ask, say, Indiana.)

Butler's backcourt transition could prove much more difficult. Mack is gone, as are solid senior contributors Shawn Vanzant and Zach Hahn. Senior guard Ronald Nored is back, which is good news on two fronts. First, Nored is a great defender, one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. Second, Nored is a born leader, and his continuity could be crucial for a team that lost so much at the top when Howard and Mack moved on.

Still, there is no obvious replacement for Mack. Junior guard Chase Stigall is an interesting offensive player, but his game is mostly of the spot-up variety (and even then Stigall only made 32 percent of his 3s in 2011). And, in terms of returners, that's pretty much it: Mack, Vanzant, Hahn, Nored and Stigall were basically Butler's only backcourt players last season (at least when Howard wasn't facing up around the perimeter). Who fills that gap?

That brings us to recruiting, the best indicator of whether Butler has turned the past two seasons into a pathway toward long-term excellence. But the 2011 class wasn't a major statement in either direction. There are some intriguing players here, but no one as good as Marshall. The best prospect in the class is probably small forward Roosevelt Jones, who is ranked No. 33 at his position.

Things are looking better for 2012-13, as Stevens landed Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and has already received a commitment from ESPNU top 100 player Kellen Dunham. And Butler has had a hand in high-profile recruitments like that of Indiana commitment Cody Zeller. But the Bulldogs haven't experienced a recruiting revolution just yet. There might be a springboard effect at work eventually, but right now, its impact appears to have been limited.

That means, in 2011-12 at least, Stevens will be doing ... exactly what he's been doing throughout his tenure at the school, actually. He'll be charged with taking a group of talented but not elite players, molding them into a team over the course of the nonconference and Horizon League season, and then out-scouting and out-smarting everyone with more talent along the way.

After all, Butler's recent rise wasn't just luck. It came thanks to Stevens' brilliant work preparing his teams in the past two NCAA tournaments. As we saw last year, it's a mistake to count Butler out. Major pieces have gone, and replacing them won't be easy. But no coach -- frankly, no program -- in the country is better at forging a capital-T Team built to exceed the sum of its parts.

Then you get in the NCAA tournament. Howard makes a last-second tip-in, Nasir Robinson suffers a mental brain fart at the worst possible time, and the next thing you know, you're right back in the Final Four.

The surprising underdog isn't the only reason we love college hoops, but it's definitely one of them. Butler might not be the next Duke -- let's wait a few years before we render that final judgement. In 2011-12, though, merely being Butler ought to be enough.

Butler and Gonzaga to square off

July, 6, 2011
Butler and Gonzaga are the two kings of college basketball's mid-majors (if you can still call them that), and they'll be starting a home-and-home series in December for the next two seasons, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Butler is to travel to Spokane, Wash., to meet the Zags on Dec. 20. The Bulldogs are to play at Stanford two or three days later. Gonzaga is to visit Hinkle Fieldhouse in December 2012.

“It’s an exciting series, and it’s going to benefit both teams and help them prepare,” Butler associate head coach Matthew Graves said today.

It's a buzz-worthy match-up that brings together two programs that didn't need power conference affiliations to rise up as basketball powerhouses. Gonzaga has won 11 straight regular-season titles in the West Coast Conference, making annual trips to the NCAA tournament during that span. Butler is coming off consecutive national championship game appearances and has seen its profile boosted as well by Brad Stevens and his celebrity status.

The Bulldogs versus Bulldogs games should bring plenty of intrigue, especially this coming season in Spokane. While Butler will be in the process of finding out which players will step up after the departures of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, Gonzaga returns a team of veterans that include Elias Harris and Robert Sacre.

It will be a big early-season test for both Cinderella programs and will reunite Stevens and Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who helped each other through rough starts last season, as Andy Katz reported in March.
"We talked through it," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I kept telling him that it would be OK. We were going through something similar [back-to-back losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco]. I kept following them through January and February and compared how we both took care of business."

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

"I'm sure the people around the Butler program were lamenting coming off a national championship game with the expectations of all those guys coming back and all that noise," Few said. "But you have to believe in the system. And his guys did."

Butler's Khyle Marshall braces for doubters

June, 30, 2011

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Khyle Marshall can’t bring himself to do it.

The Butler forward hasn’t watched tape of the Bulldogs’ ugly loss in the national championship game to Connecticut, and he doesn’t plan to because what‘s done is done. In focusing on the future, Marshall envisions people doubting a team that once again will have to form a new identity.

“They always use what we lost last year as fuel to bash on us and say that we can’t do what we did last year, especially when we did it two years in a row,” Marshall said. “There’s always going to be more doubts, and that’s just something we let go in one ear and out the other. We just worry about our team and just play hard and stay motivated.”

[+] EnlargeKhyle Marshall
Chuck Cook/US PresswireForward Khyle Marshall and Butler are preparing for another season of surprising their critics.
Butler has indeed lost a lot for a second straight offseason -- so much so that it might not even be the favorite to win the Horizon League next season. Shelvin Mack left school for the NBA after his junior year, and the college careers of stalwarts Matt Howard and Shawn Vanzant came to an end as well.

That means without three of his top four scorers, Butler coach Brad Stevens will rely upon Marshall and others to step to the forefront. Marshall was the self-described energy guy for the team as a freshman and shined while playing solid minutes in the NCAA tournament. The Florida native who’s currently playing for USA Basketball’s U-19 world championship team understands he’ll have to do more in order to move into the starting lineup.

After averaging 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds and buying into Stevens' preference that he bring a rebounding presence off the bench, Marshall has been working on his outside jumper and ball-handling in preparation for a larger role. He was second on the team in field goal percentage and now Stevens wants him to play more small forward. Personally, he has a chip on his shoulder because it appears few outside of Indianapolis think the Bulldogs can actually get back to the Final Four.

“As a team joke going around, we just call ourselves the king of bracketbusters because we’re always messing up people’s brackets,” Marshall said. “That’s something that we love to do. It’s something we just want to continue.

“All we want to do is just prove people wrong.”

Marshall believes the coming season might present an even greater challenge than when Butler lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA draft, and it certainly wasn’t easy getting back to the title game even with a veteran team. Butler was 14-9 at one point last season and needed to learn to stop living off the past, he said. The Bulldogs ended up reeling off 14 straight wins, and America fell in love all over again. The team fell short of the national championship after a horrific night shooting the ball, but Marshall said he’s over it.

“It did take quite a bit [of time],” he said. “Pretty much all you hear is worst shooting performance in NCAA finals history, and that’s something you can’t get rid of. It’s in the books. It’s permanent. It’s something we always got to remember, keep in our minds, and just hope we don’t have a shooting performance like that ever again. It’s something Coach has told us.

“Everybody on campus, they believe we can do it again, and I know our guys they want to do it again. We just need one more step to win it all. They are hungry to win it all.”
It's the day after the draft. For me, that means sitting at my desk, staring at my computer screen, and wondering if what I saw last night unfold last night is really how things went down. In other words, I'm still processing all this.

You know what else the Draft Day Plus 1 means? Listicles. Lots and lots of listicles.

You know what I always say: If you can't beat them -- if you can't think of a similarly efficient content delivery format that doesn't rely so heavily on lists, basically -- join them. Without further ado, here's one of a few college hoops-inclined looks at last night's action. Next up: The biggest college winners drafted in the second round.

NBA general managers frequently pay homage to the idea of intangibles. They praise players for character, for motor, for having accomplished things during their amateur careers. Then, when the draft clock winds down, those same GMs just as frequently ignore that lip service in favor of drafting the best athlete, or the high-risk, high-reward talent, or the latest 7-foot European sensation.

That's part of the reason why, if you compare the two rounds of last night's NBA draft, you might find just as many -- if not more -- college hoops wins in the second round as the first. There were a lot of awfully successful college hoopsters drafted in the latter round last night. Here's a few of them.

[+] EnlargeKyle Singler
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireKyle Singler was a value pick for the Detroit Pistons in the second round.
1. Kyle Singler, forward, Duke, No. 33: If it wasn't for Nolan Smith being drafted in the first round (Smith went surprisingly early to the Trail Blazers at No. 21), the Duke duo may have tipped the college wins scale fully in the favor of the second round. As it is, Singler stands alone atop this list for his unparalleled college success. Singler was a key contributor in all four of his years at Duke, and in that span the Blue Devils never won fewer than 28 games during his tenure, and they never lost more than seven games in any season. His career record? 125-23. Oh, and there was that 2010 national title, too. Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars values character and experience, and he may have been elated that Singler's shooting woes and tweener issues kept him available until the second round.

2. Shelvin Mack, guard, Butler, No. 34: The Washington Wizards drew praise from all corners for their draft selections Thursday night. That praise was cemented when the Wizards landed Mack just one pick after Singler's selection in the second round. Mack's accomplishments in his three years at Butler speak for themselves: An 87-21 record, three straight Horizon League titles, a variety of individual regular season and postseason awards, and, most importantly, a penchant for turning his game on in March. Mack helped engineer two of the most unlikely postseason runs in NCAA tournament history as a sophomore and junior, and with his combination of outside shooting, distribution and lockdown defense, the Bulldogs finished as NCAA runners-up two years in a row.

3. E'Twaun Moore, guard, Purdue, No. 55: The NBA draft coincidence of the night -- assuming the Celtics didn't plan this out -- was seeing Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson and former teammate E'Twaun Moore both land on the same team in Boston. Johnson was selected in the first round, and Moore was taken in the second, but it's not unfair to say Moore might make an easier and more immediate transition to the pros. At the very least, the Celtics know Moore was a quietly effective, consistent collegiate winner. He helped lead Purdue to four straight plus-25-win seasons, became the fourth player in Big Ten history to notch at least 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 350 assists, and was one of the reasons the Boilermakers were on the precipice of national title runs in 2010 and 2011 before Robbie Hummel's untimely injuries. Moore, Johnson and Hummel led something of a hoops renaissance under Matt Painter at Purdue, and if I'm an NBA GM, that sort of pedigree is worth a pick any day.

4. Jon Leuer, forward, Wisconsin, No. 40: As go Bo Ryan's teams, so go Bo Ryan's players. Or maybe that's the other way around. However you choose to view it, the bottom line is that Wisconsin wins -- incredibly, Ryan has still never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten -- as consistently as any program in the country. In the past four years, that winning has had much to do with the play of Jon Leuer, who, in typical Wisconsin fashion, morphed from a so-so prospect into one of the most efficient players in college basketball in his final two seasons. Quiet effectiveness in a versatile 7-foot frame? Yes please.

5. Jon Diebler, guard, Ohio State, No. 51: With apologies to Isaiah Thomas, who snuck into the draft with the final pick in the second round last night (and who might have snuck onto this list if we didn't think Washington limped through so much of their 2010-11 season), Diebler gets the nod at the fifth spot here. The Buckeyes guard had the benefit of playing with some very talented players in his days at Ohio State, but it's worth noting that Diebler wasn't always the hypereffective outside shooter we now know. As a freshman, he shot 29 percent from 3. As a sophomore, he had improved that mark to 42 percent. By the time he was a senior, Diebler was the most dangerous perimeter shooter in the country, making 50 percent (!) of his threes and posting -- check out these stats -- an offensive rating of 140.6 (No. 1 in the country), an effective field goal percentage of 70.6 (No. 2 in the country) and a true shooting percentage of 72.3 (No. 1 in the country). Having Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger finding you for open shots in back to back years is a blessing. But it's a blessing Diebler exploited like few other players in the country. There's no reason to expect anything less in the NBA.

Video: Shelvin Mack to enter NBA draft

April, 12, 2011

Andy Katz talks about Shelvin Mack's decision to enter the NBA draft.

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.

Walker, Mack will decide title game

April, 3, 2011

HOUSTON -- Kemba Walker, Nolan Smith and Shelvin Mack were the three standout guards for the USA Select team in the summer, competing against the national team that was prepping for the FIBA World Championships in Turkey.

Smith went on to lead Duke to a No. 1 seed and was a strong contender for national player of the year. Walker was a headline act all season -- from dominating the Maui Invitational to hitting game-winning shots against Texas and Villanova, to orchestrating the Huskies' improbable five-games-in-five-days Big East tournament title.

But somehow Mack got lost a bit during the season. He did score 25 at Louisville, but the game was over soon after it started as the Bulldogs were crushed. Mack had a chance to steal some of the stage against Duke in New Jersey, especially with guard Kyrie Irving getting hurt in that game, but cramping kept him out of the lineup for most of the second half. And then his productivity and lack of drama were forgotten amid the Bulldogs' midseason struggles in the Horizon League.

One of his former USA teammates never forgot, though.

[+] EnlargeShelvin Mack
Bob Donnan/US PresswireShelvin Mack has led the Bulldogs in scoring during the NCAA tournament.
"I put him right up there," Walker said of Mack. "He doesn't get the recognition that myself and Nolan and Jimmer [Fredette] and us got, but his team is playing in the national championship game. What more can you say? He's a great player and he definitely deserves a lot of attention."

Mack has indeed emerged again, proving to be the player that he was a year ago in leading Butler to the national title game with Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard. He's done it again this tournament with 30 points against Pitt, 27 against Florida and 24 against VCU.

And now Walker and Mack will compete, although not guard each other, for the national championship Monday night at Reliant Stadium.

"There are a lot of similarities," Mack said of the pair. "He does a great job of making his teammates better. A few games this year, he had a chance to take the game-winning shot, but he passed it off to someone else. I do the same thing. It's just the right basketball play."

"Just his ability to make shots," Walker said of Mack. "He makes tough shots all the time that are really hard to guard. He makes shots where you're playing great defense, but he just has better offense. I definitely saw that, playing against the USA team and I think that's what makes Shelvin so good."

Both are juniors and both are at the very least mid-first-round NBA draft picks if they choose to declare by April 24.

"The game will be decided by those two guys," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is an assistant coach on the USA national team and the director of the junior national team.

Walker played for the 2008 U-18 group that finished 4-1 and won silver in Argentina. He was the MVP, averaging 13.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and five assists a game. Walker declined to participate the next summer in New Zealand and Mack said he was Walker's replacement. And then he and Howard helped lead the Americans to the gold medal for the first time since 1991, with Mack averaging 5.9 points and 2.9 rebounds.

"They’re two different players, but the game will be decided by those two and who plays the best will win since everyone else on the two teams will cancel out," Boeheim said. "Kemba has been the best player in the country by far in the last 10 games. He did hit a dead spot in our league, but the first 10 games and the last 10 games he's been by far the most dominant player in the country.

"Mack is good, really good, and in watching Mack and Kemba the last two summers it's amazing how much they've improved," Boeheim said. "They're a great case for staying in school."

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who co-coached the select team with Villanova's Jay Wright, said Walker, Mack and Smith held their own against the NBA guards like Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireKemba Walker made huge strides between his sophomore and junior year.
But Romar fawned over how much Mack and Walker have developed.

"If you need a big basket, Mack makes those shots," Romar said. "He has ice in his veins. Kemba is more of a guard who can do what he wants to break you down and bust you. Mack still does it but within what [Butler] is doing. Kemba is more dynamic, with more flash. Shelvin is solid in every sense of the word. Kemba is probably the player who you pay to see play and Shelvin will also be the player at the end of the day who is going to lead his team to a win, just not in as flashy a manner."

Mack and Walker have been tremendous leaders for their respective teams. Mack obviously has more help with senior Howard and outspoken guards Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant. Walker has had to do most of this on his own, with some locker room help from senior Donnell Beverly.

And Mack has offered up some sage advice on how to lead a team in the tournament.

"Trust what you're doing, do what you trust," Mack said. "If you can improve, have people buy in to your system, great things will happen because you all have faith in each other and you'll have a lot of success."

While Mack has more leadership help from experienced teammates, he has to do much more offensively than Walker since Connecticut has more talent surrounding its junior guard.

"There's no secret that we're here because he's carried us in a few games," said Howard. "He's approached every game the same way. He's still playing within our offense and that's the thing about it. He just makes plays and makes shots. That's what we've come to expect from him because of the work he puts in."

If it sounds familiar to what is said about Walker, then that's because it is: "We gave him a road map and he drove us tremendously," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun.

Of Mack, Calhoun said that he has gone under the radar and that he can match up with anybody and is a terrific basketball player.

The mutual admiration between Mack and Walker extends well beyond each other, to their teammates, to the respective staffs, to everyone involved in USA Basketball the past few summers.

"Let's face it, the reason Butler is winning is that they have a close-to-lottery pick again this year," Boeheim said of Mack. "With Kemba, he made as big a jump from his sophomore year to his junior year as I've ever seen. But Kemba will have to have a big game for them to win."

Butler Bulldogs cannot be denied

April, 3, 2011
HOUSTON -- The MVP of Butler's 70-62 win over Virginia Commonwealth didn't score a single point.

Ronald Nored launched five shots and missed them all, but without Nored, Butler may not be doing the unthinkable: playing in a back-to-back national championship game.

The playmaker and lockdown defender for the Bulldogs scored his biggest assist hours before the game even tipped off, concocting a devious plan that ended up being every bit as critical as Brad Stevens' game plan.

As Butler gathered for its pre-game meal, Nored leaned over to Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs' best pure scorer, and told him that he'd read that some of the Virginia Commonwealth players were dogging Mack, saying he wasn't anywhere near as good as some of the players they'd faced in this NCAA tournament.

"Yeah it was a total lie," Nored said. "Nobody said that, but I'd seen that on a '30 for 30' about Reggie Miller. Marc Jackson told him some stuff and Reggie went off. I figured if it worked for Reggie, maybe it would work for Shelvin. I mean it couldn't hurt, right?"

Click here for the full story.

Video: Butler focused for another test

April, 2, 2011

Brad Stevens, Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Shaka Smart on Butler's 70-62 win.

Video: Butler guard Ronald Nored

April, 2, 2011

Butler guard Ronald Nored talks about Shelvin Mack and the win over VCU.

Video: Shelvin Mack on win over VCU

April, 2, 2011

Butler guard Shelvin Mack talks about his big game in the win over VCU.

Video: Mack the difference in Butler win

April, 2, 2011

Pat Forde and Dana O'Neil break down Butler's win over VCU from the Final Four.

Video: Butler's Ronald Nored

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