College Basketball Nation: Willie Veasley

He made a career out of tilting at windmills and slaying dragons, the ultimate underdog in a game in which bigger and stronger is supposed to equate to better.

He was craftier, that’s always been the argument. Pete Carril was able to conjure up an offensive scheme that put his Princeton teams on equal footing with their more talented foes.

Actually, above all else, Carril is practical.

Three, he knows, is worth more than two.

[+] EnlargeJamie Skeen, Skaka Smart
Geoff Burke/US PresswireForward Jamie Skeen was one of the key 3-point shooters for coach Shaka Smart during Virginia Commonwealth's run to last season's Final Four.
“Sometimes we had centers and forwards smaller than our guards, so who were you going to post up?” Carril said. “So what we had, we had 3-point shooters and we made a lot of 3s. They add up.’’

There is, it turns out, genius in simple math.

The 3-point shot, celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, has revolutionized the game. Post play is no longer as crowded as a New York City subway at rush hour, defenses are stretched across the floor and the little man is more than just a dribbler.

Perhaps less noticeable to the naked eye, the 3 also has given rise to the mid-major. Parity has hit the college game for plenty of reasons -- the one-and-done rule leaves top teams without valuable experience and leadership; television has exposed recruits to more and more teams; name-branding from the NCAA tournament -- but it would be foolish to overlook the impact of the 3.

“It isn’t an equalizer in the game,’’ Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart said. “It is the equalizer.’’

Smart should know. His Rams toed the arc all the way to Houston and the Final Four last season, connecting on 61 of 143 (42.7 percent) of their 3s compared to just 31-of-113 (27.4) by their opponents.

In perhaps their most difficult step, the Elite Eight game against Kansas, VCU knocked down 12-of-25 from long distance to just 2-of-21 for the Jayhawks.

But VCU is hardly the first team to expose its heftier opponents by draining 3s. In some of the most memorable upsets and Cinderella runs in college basketball, there is one common denominator -- 3-point shooting.

  • 1991 Richmond vs. Syracuse: The Spiders knocked down 5-of-17 from the arc to 5-of-21 by the Orange.
  • 1996 Princeton vs. UCLA: The Tigers were 8-of-27, the Bruins 5-of-18.
  • 1999 Weber State vs. North Carolina: The Wildcats were 14-of-26, the Tar Heels 9-of-21.
  • 2005 Bucknell vs. Kansas: The Bison were 8-of-31, the Jayhawks 1-of-11.
  • 2010 Northern Iowa vs. Kansas: The Panthers were 9-of-26, the Jayhawks 6-of-23.
  • 2010 Butler Final Four run: The Bulldogs sunk 42 3s to 22 by their opponents.
  • 2011 Butler Final Four run: The Bulldogs sunk 44 3s to 34 by their opponents.

“When you are truly undersized and undermanned, it changes everything,’’ Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “It doesn’t have to be someone in particular who can shoot it, but you have to some reliability. One of the reasons we went to the national championship game is because Matt Howard hit five 3s his first year and 53 as a senior. We don’t go if we can’t stretch the floor with him.’’

Chris Mack found out just how hard it is to win without a 3-point shooter. A year ago, Brad Redford tore his ACL before the season, sidelining the 42 percent shooter for Xavier. Mack's Musketeers went on to a more than respectable 24-8 record but were bounced short of their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 by Marquette.

The double dip of extra attention paid to Tu Holloway and Xavier’s 2-of-13 shooting from the 3-point line doomed the Musketeers in that game.

“Having Brad back does two things for us,’’ Mack said. “It makes our other players better because the floor is so much more spread out. It makes our penetrators better because they have less help-side [defense] to navigate through, but it almost becomes a 4-on-4 game because you can’t leave him. We’re a much more dangerous team because he’s as automatic as they come.’’

The challenge for mid-majors, or any coach for that matter, is finding guys who can hit a 3. As teams continue to go away from the traditional power forward, relying more and more on guys who are more versatile at the 4 position, recruits who can hit a 3 are at a premium.

Consequently coaches who might be second in line in the pecking order are forced to develop good shooters if they can’t recruit them.

Which begs a chicken-or-egg question: Are great 3-pointer shooters born or can they be created?

The answer is both. Right now Stevens has one of the best 3-point shooters in the game sitting on the bench -- Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke. In three years, Clarke has drained 274 3s.

But over the course of time Stevens also has turned guys into 3-point shooters.

Along with Howard, Stevens helped coax Willie Veasley into a 3-point shooter. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Veasley didn’t even attempt a 3-point shot. By his senior season, he drained 45.

There’s no trick involved, just commitment from a player and dedication from a coach.

“When you see a guy consistently make a shot from 18 feet and you move him back to 20, if he struggles from there people tend to say, ‘Well, that’s not your range,'’’ Carril said. “I never listened to that. There’s not much difference between 18 and 20 feet.’’

No, but there’s a world of difference for a mid-major team that can hit a 3-pointer.
There's still time. I have to remind myself that sometimes, because my brain is currently on bubble overload. Today we'll publish our second Bubble Watch of the season, and as I'm learning (this is my first year doing Bubble Watch) it's really hard to spend so much time evaluating teams and not let the bubble picture tinge every piece of analysis you write. Because it is only the first week of February, and the bubble picture is far from complete. It's an important thing to remember.

That said, we are far enough into the season that we can be sure of a few things, and one of the few things I'm sure of, right here, right now (hat tip: Jesus Jones) is that 2010's national title runner-up needs to win its conference tournament even if it wants to avoid being 2011's NIT inclusion.

Yes, we're talking Butler, and yes, Butler lost again last night. This wasn't just any old loss, though. It was a loss to mighty Youngstown State, a team that is now 2-10 in the Horizon League and 6-14 overall. The Penguins are about as bad a loss as you can take at this point in the season, both in RPI terms and from a sheer reality-based (read: efficiency) perspective. Youngstown's RPI comes in at -- avert your eyes -- No. 269. Their Pomeroy rank is No. 276. They are, not to be rude, a pretty bad team. And now Butler will have to pay the consequences.

Of course, the Bulldogs wouldn't be in this position if Youngstown State was their only bad loss. It isn't. The Bulldogs have been swept by Wisconsin-Milwaukee in conference play and lost to Evansville at home all the way back in November; all of those losses carry a distinct "bad loss" stench that will be hard to wash off. Nor do the Bulldogs have any really good wins to speak of. Their only RPI top 50 victory came against Cleveland State on Jan. 7, and their wins against Florida State and Washington State in the Diamond Head Classic in December won't do them much good when it comes to impressing the committee.

But perhaps the most damning piece of their profile is this: After last night's loss, Butler is now 6-5 in Horizon League play. 6-5! The Horizon League is never a conference in which you can go 6-5 through your first 11 games and expect to make the NCAA tournament with anything but a late-season conference tournament title run. It just isn't going to happen.

Can Butler do it? Well, sure. Frankly, anything can happen in conference tournaments, and you'd probably still take the Bulldogs' experienced starting five over any team in the Horizon League in a single-game elimination tournament. But Butler has been hounded (sorry) all year long by its very mediocre defense. It's no secret the Bulldogs have seen a drastic downtick in defensive efficiency since losing Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley from last season's team. At this point in the season, projecting an equally drastic "hey, we figured it out" development in Indianapolis seems like wishcasting. (This is shocking, considering how well Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack defended opposing guards in last year's NCAA tournament. It appears we should have been giving just as much credit to Hayward and Veasley.)

These Bulldogs are not who we thought they were. And, as of last night, their at-large chances are kaput. In a season full of surprise disappointments, Brad Stevens's team -- which has gone from the precipice of a national title to the National Invitational Tournament in a matter of 10 months -- might be the biggest letdown of all.

Summer Buzz: Butler Bulldogs

August, 2, 2010
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For the next month or so, 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 Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (Syracuse will be posted later this afternoon.) Up next? Georgetown.

In retrospect, we should have seen Butler coming.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. And sure, the Bulldogs lost a few early-season nonconference games (to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown, and UAB) that made their torrid undefeated run through the hapless Horizon League difficult to evaluate. Still, teams with defenses as efficient as Butler's -- which ranked No. 5 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency by the end of the season, a mark that improved as the team worked through its brilliant bracket run -- don't come along all that often.

Butler's methodical march to the precipice of a remarkable national title was a great story off the court. On the floor, it was less surprising. Even when it struggled to find points, Butler's stifling team defense was just that good. We should have seen it coming.

[+] EnlargeHayward
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesNot only will Butler miss Gordon Hayward's scoring, but the Bulldogs need to replace his defensive production as well.
Will we make the same mistake in 2010-11? Will Butler be good enough to give us a chance? Or, with the losses of Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley, did Brad Stevens and company leave their best chance at a national title in Indianapolis?

Simply enough, those answers will depend on how well Butler can cope with the aforementioned losses, how Butler's remaining core -- a formidable one -- can collectively recreate Hayward's considerable offensive and defensive production.

And make no mistake: Hayward's contributions came all over the floor. While not a dominant player in any statistical category, the athletic 6-foot-8 forward was blatantly good at some things and subtly good at others. The blatantly good: Shooting (52.7 effective field goal percentage) and scoring (112.7 offensive rating), drawing fouls (5.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) and getting to the free throw line (57.9 percent free throw rate).

But Hayward, perhaps less blatantly, was also a major factor in Butler's defensive excellence. His block rate of 2.8 percent helped shore up Butler's interior defense, and he had by far the best defensive rebounding rate -- 23.3 percent, ranking him 67th in the country in the tally -- of anyone in Butler's often undersized lineup. The team's next-highest defensive rebounding percentage, 16.5, belonged to Matt Howard.

That last stat is notable for more than proving Hayward's versatility. In fact, Hayward's contributions on the defensive glass were the one thing holding Butler back from being a truly vulnerable defensive team. The Bulldogs' only real weakness in 2009-10 came on the defensive boards: Butler allowed its opponents to rebound 27.8 percent of its misses, the 18th-highest figure in the country. With Hayward gone, it's unclear who can help Butler shore up that already-exposed area of an otherwise stalwart defense.

Howard is the obvious candidate, but thanks to chronic foul trouble, Howard played few key minutes during Butler's tournament run. That will have to change; Howard will have to find a way to guard bigger, stronger opponents without taking himself out of the game for key stretches.

Another likely candidate is sophomore Andrew Smith. The 6-foot-11 forward has played limited minutes in his freshman season but was forced into action in the tournament by Howard's foul-prone habits. Smith is a big body, and playing him alongside Howard could alleviate the pressure on Butler's former Horizon League player of the year both in guarding and blocking out fellow big men.

Butler also has a pair of sneaky-good recruits that Stevens will hope can combine to approximate some form of the versatility lost with Hayward and Veasley's absences. Khyle Marshall, a 6-foot-6 small forward with a wealth of athleticism, was the No. 22-ranked small forward in the 2010 class. There's also 6-foot-9 Indiana native Eric Fromm, a power forward who's shown a penchant for defensive rebounding and an ability to start the break on the dribble. Some combination of those players -- mixed in with relative newcomer Smith -- could help Butler avoid the obvious pitfalls of losing Hayward's defensive contributions.

Butler will still be very good elsewhere. Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored are two of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Mack is good enough to handle an increased offensive scoring load. Howard, provided he can figure out how to stay on the floor, will be as solid and productive as ever. Butler was never particularly lethal on offense in 2009-10 -- even Hayward had his noticeable offensive flaws -- but they didn't have to be.

Whether that equation changes will have everything to do with whether Butler's newcomers can make up for the less noticeable things Hayward did for his team on the defensive end. If the Bulldogs can find a way to keep their only subpar area -- defensive rebounding -- from becoming an even greater liability in Hayward's absence, the Bulldogs won't be a surprise to anybody. They'll just be good.

If so, we'll see them coming before our brackets are completely busted. That much we know for sure.

Butler helps Washington Generals lose by 19

April, 16, 2010
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Butler seniors Avery Jukes, Willie Veasley and Nick Rodgers signed one-game contracts to help the Washington Generals of all teams take on the Harlem Globetrotters.

Not surprisingly, the Globetrotters won again 70-51, with the players making their cameos by playing five minutes in the first half and then calling it a night.

ESPN Page 2 covered the game, and reported the Butler players also got needled by one of the Globetrotters.
During their on-court cameo, Jukes missed a dunk, but managed to score a less-than-contested close range lay-up. Rodgers took three shots, one less than he attempted all season, missing all three, and Veasley settled for a 2-for-2 performance from the free-throw line despite Special K Daley's best efforts at distraction.

"You all were a lot better on TV," Special K joked.

Butler seniors sign with Washington Generals

April, 12, 2010
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If America thought Butler's Willie Veasley, Avery Jukes and Nick Rodgers were facing long odds to win the NCAA tournament, they've found an even greater challenge in trying to take on the Harlem Globetrotters.

The three seniors have signed one-game contracts with the losing-oriented Washington Generals to play an exhibition against the Globetrotters at Conseco Fieldhouse on Wednesday. The Globetrotters, who put out the press release, haven't lost to the Generals since 1971.

"These kids have the winning attitude we need to push us over the hump," Red Klotz, the Generals' owner and president, said in a statement. "Playing in Indianapolis with these guys on the floor also gives us the type of home court advantage the Bulldogs enjoyed at the Final Four. I don’t think I'd want to be a Globetrotter on Wednesday night trying to shut these guys down."

The Globetrotters have lost to such college teams as Michigan State in 2000 and UTEP in 2003. Now, the red, white and blue will take on three players from Butler -- America's team -- in an attempt to keep the 39-year winning streak against the sorry Generals alive.

Singler leading Duke in second half

April, 5, 2010
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Quick thoughts with Duke ahead 53-49 over Butler with 7:58 left in the game.

  • Kyle Singler is playing an MVP type of game with his ability to make big shots and come up with key defensive stops.
  • Butler gambled and went small and it cost the Bulldogs on an inbouds play that Singler converted, using his size advantage. There have been some odd matchups like Willie Veasley on Brian Zoubek.
  • Butler is in jeopardy of losing control here. Butler has been forcing turnovers and coming up with stops, but hasn’t finished consistently.
  • Hard to see Butler winning if Gordon Hayward can’t make a few big shots. He is driving to to the basket, but that’s not enough.
  • Duke is earning every bucket, but the Blue Devils’ offense has been enough to stretch out a lead.

Can Butler hold on?

April, 3, 2010
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Hometown favorite Butler has a 47-43 lead over Michigan State with less than six minutes to go in Saturday night's NCAA tournament national semifinals game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Can the Bulldogs close it out? Here are a few things to watch:

  • After Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack carried the Bulldogs in the first half, junior forward Matt Howard and senior guard Willie Veasley are helping in the second half. Howard went to the bench and appears to be a little bit wobbly after a collision under the basket.
  • How much do the Spartans miss sophomore guard Kalin Lucas, who is sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon? Michigan State has turned the ball over 14 times, and the Bulldogs have converted them into 19 points. The Spartans have seven turnovers this half; Butler has turned it over only once in the second half.
  • After sizzling starts, both teams are struggling to score. Neither team had made a field goal for more than five minutes at the 6:04 mark.
Butler BulldogsChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesButler can celebrate a trip to the Final Four thanks to its defense.
SALT LAKE CITY -- Butler forward Gordon Hayward was named the West Regional's Most Outstanding Player on Saturday.

Guard Shelvin Mack was named to the All-West Regional team.

But Bulldogs guards Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley might have had the biggest impacts in No. 5-seeded Butler's 63-56 upset of No. 2-seeded Kansas State in Saturday's West Regional final at EnergySolutions Arena.

Together, Nored and Veasley helped hold Kansas State guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen to only two points combined in the first half. The Wildcats guards came into the game combining to average 46 points in their previous three NCAA tournament games.

"I think I'm sure you noticed we played a lot of attention to them," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "Every ball screen, we tried to trap, which is a little bit different than our normal [plan]. We wanted to try to make their bigs take jump shots. I think the first eight minutes, that was really proving itself to be happening."

Nored, a 6-foot sophomore from Homewood, Ala., drew the tough assignment of guarding Pullen, who averaged 25.7 points in the previous three NCAA games. Nored hounded him, just like he shadowed Syracuse's Andy Rautins in Butler's 63-59 upset of the No. 1-seeded Orange in Thursday night's regional semifinals. Pullen was scoreless in the first half and took only two shots.

On Friday, Nored said he watched highlights of about 60 shots by Pullen in the last few games.

"No one was really physical with him," Nored said. "A lot of people lost him. I wanted to stay with him and stay really physical with him when he came off screens. After you're getting chased and pushed time after time throughout the game, your shot doesn't feel as good."

Veasley, a 6-foot-3 senior from Freeport, Ill., drew the tough assignment of guarding Clemente. In the upset of Syracuse, Veasley guarded 6-7 forward Wesley Johnson, one of the country's best players.

"He goes from guarding the the most athletic player in the country to the fastest player in the country," Nored said. "That tells you how versatile he is."

Clemente scored 18 points on 7-for-17 shooting. Kansas State coach Frank Martin said Clemente was hobbled by two deep thigh bruises he suffered running through two ball screens early in the game, but was still able to finish.

"They came out and stayed with those two guys and hounded them," Martin said. "We accepted their ball pressure, took hurried shots and hurried possessions, which is what they try to do to people."

It was the exact blueprint Butler hoped to follow.

"We just tried to slow them down and make them as uncomfortable as possible," Veasley said.

Clemente scored 16 points in the second half and finished with 18. Pullen scored all of his 14 points in the second half.

Gordon HaywardJed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesGordon Hayward had 17 points and five rebounds in Butler's upset win over Syracuse.
SALT LAKE CITY -- Even though Gordon Hayward grew up only 20 miles west of Indianapolis, he admits he knew very little about Butler University.

"It was always Indiana University and Purdue," Hayward said. "Both of my parents are Purdue graduates, so I was a really big Purdue fan. But I knew very little about Butler."

After stunning No. 1-seeded Syracuse 63-59 in the West Regional semifinals at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night, the No. 5-seeded Bulldogs can become Indiana's -- and possibly America's -- favorite team at next week's Final Four in Indianapolis.

If Butler can win its 24th consecutive game against either No. 2-seeded Kansas State or No. 6-seeded Xavier in the West Regional finals on Saturday, it will become the first team since UCLA in 1972 to play in the Final Four in its home city.

"It would be something pretty special," Hayward said. "I think it just shows how far our program has come."

The Bulldogs still have to win another game to get there, but anything seems possible for them at this point. Butler beating Syracuse wasn't exactly No. 9-seeded Northern Iowa upsetting No. 1-seeded Kansas.

The Bulldogs are very good and have been for quite a while.

And now they have a victory over a No. 1 seed to prove it.

"We're not going to say we have the best athletes in the country, but we've got a system and we have to be crisp to execute it," Butler forward Matt Howard said. "We're not going to beat you one-one-one. We play for each other. There's not one guy on this team who is selfish and that's why we win."

The Bulldogs have played in the NCAA tournament nine times in the last 14 seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 three times in the last eight years. But until Thursday night, they had never advanced past the regional semifinals. Butler is the first team from the Horizon League to reach a regional final.

"I'm going home on Saturday night or Sunday morning, whenever the charter [plane] gets here," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We're going to Indy. I just hope we still have season left. It's already daunting enough to play Kansas State or Xavier. They're two great teams. [My players] are still a long way away from playing in the Final Four."

The Orange were supposed to be taller, stronger and more athletic than the Bulldogs. Butler wasn't supposed to be able to score against Syracuse's seemingly impenetrable 2-3 zone defense, and the Orange were supposed to be more equipped to handle the pressure of playing on this kind of stage.

"People look at us and think we're not as athletic or talented and they don't see NBA lottery picks," Hayward said. "But it's a five-man game. Teams win games."

From the game's opening moments, it was clear Butler was ready to play. The Bulldogs took a 12-1 lead in the game's first seven minutes, holding Syracuse without a field goal during the first 7:02. Syracuse was the team that had problems handling the basketball against defensive pressure, as the Orange had 12 turnovers in the first half and 18 in the game.

Butler had only seven turnovers, its second-lowest total in a game this season.

"The game was a story of turnovers," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "They didn't make turnovers. They were really good with the basketball. We made 18 turnovers. You can't give away that many possessions. It was probably one of the two or three games all year where we have not been good with the basketball. We just made some unforced errors, just threw the ball out of bounds."

But the Bulldogs made big plays when they needed them, too. After blowing a 10-point lead in the second half, Butler fell behind 54-50 with 5:23 to play. But the Bulldogs scored the game's next 11 points. Senior guard Willie Veasley scored five straight points -- a 3-pointer that made it 58-54 and a tip-in that gave Butler a six-point lead with one minute left.

"You talk about a senior that doesn't get much attention," Stevens said of Veasley. "The people that have been around our program a lot know that Willie has been our rock. He's a big-time winner."

Veasley's 3-pointer bounced high off the rim, but somehow went through the net.

"I was already headed down the court because I figured it was going to go over the top and I missed it," Veasley said. "I looked back, it came back down and went through. That's a H-O-R-S-E shot. I never made anything like that."

The Bulldogs have already defeated Xavier once this season, winning 69-68 after a controversial finish at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indy on Dec. 19. Hayward scored the winning layup in the final seconds, but the clock inadvertently stopped during Butler's final possession. Officials reviewed the play, counted Hayward's shot and then ran off the final 1.3 seconds, taking away Xavier's last chance to win the game.

Kansas State might be a tougher matchup for the Bulldogs because of their size, but their lack of height didn't seem to matter against the Orange on Thursday night.

"We feel like we can play with anybody," Howard said. "To me, that's really all that matters. We know we can go out and play with anyone."
Butler CelebrationAP Photo/Colin E. BraleyButler celebrates an unexpected victory over Syracuse and Brandon Triche.
Really, it's our own fault. We should have known.

After four days of basketball that gave us a dozen thrilling games, a handful of Cinderellas, and one of the most shocking upsets of all time, we, the college basketball-watching masses, should have taken a long collective look in the mirror and admitted the cold, hard truth: We don't know anything. Instead, we went with what we thought we knew. Syracuse was too good. Butler didn't match up. If any game was ripe for a Sweet 16 upset, it was Saint Mary's-Baylor, or Cornell-Kentucky.

We were wrong. Again.

Butler wasn't blown out. It wasn't exposed by the bigger, badder, more athletic Orange. Quite the opposite: The Bulldogs came out of the gate hot, rode what looked to be a definitive Syracuse run, turned the game around in the last two minutes, and completely altered the look of the 2010 NCAA tournament. Again.

Syracuse will be kicking themselves for the loss, not only because Jim Boeheim's team was clearly the more talented, but also because outside of the first 10 minutes, Butler didn't even play all that well. The Bulldogs shot 40 percent from the field and 25 percent from behind the arc, 10 percentage points worse than their season average. If you had bet Syracuse fans that Butler would make one of every four 3-pointers it shot over that Orange zone, would score 63 points, and would win ... well, I'm betting Syracuse fans take that bet.

Masochist Syracuse partisans -- and guard Andy Rautins -- will especially obsess over the final five minutes of the game, when Syracuse had built a four-point lead and looked primed to finally assert its superiority. Then Rautins turned the ball over, Ronald Nored hit a 3 to cut the lead to one, Matt Howard scored inside, Rautins turned the ball over again, Willie Veasley hit a 3, and then bam: 58-54 Butler, just like that. Butler extended its lead to 61-54, and Syracuse never got close enough to pull even again.

It was a brilliant upset, not only because Butler looked the better team for much of the night -- credit Butler's defense, which was ferocious -- but because the Bulldogs flipped the script when it mattered most. They didn't cede to the athletic team running at them on every possession. They didn't shake their heads at what looked to be a focused Syracuse team closing the door down the stretch. They regrouped, made two huge shots and closed out a win that was rightfully theirs. You had to have seen the game to believe it -- and also to realize how unlikely it all seemed.

Tonight's other early game pitted one of the hottest teams in the country, Washington, against a West Virginia team reeling from the loss of its starting point guard and a not particularly pretty performance in a win over Missouri in the second round. West Virginia was still the favored team -- too much talent, too much height -- but the consensus had shifted. Washington could win this thing. West Virginia is vulnerable.

That consensus wasn't anywhere near as codified as Syracuse-over-Butler, but it existed. West Virginia proved it wrong.

Without Darryl Bryant, the Mountaineers weren't exactly careful with the ball -- they committed 23 turnovers and looked truly sloppy doing so -- but what West Virginia lacked in care it more than made up for with a smothering 1-3-1 zone defense and a typically prodigious number of offensive rebounds (18, to be exact). Washington was more than happy to help the cause, giving the ball away 22 times; it's an obvious point, but committing 23 turnovers isn't that big of a deal when your opponent gives all but one of them right back.

That said, this turnover thing is a concern for the Mountaineers going forward. West Virginia has won this year thanks to offensive rebounding and low turnover counts. If this is the way WVU will take care of the ball without Truck Bryant, well, that's a problem. Rather than a trend, maybe it was merely a symptom of an intentionally ugly, grind-it-out game with a pressing, harassing team. West Virginia, which will likely play Kentucky in the Elite Eight, won't have time to find out.

The real story from tonight's first session wasn't that West Virginia won ugly, though. It was that Butler won at all. It's official: Doubt Butler -- or any other supposed underdog in this tournament -- at your own peril. We ought to learn our lesson.

Final: Butler 63, Syracuse 59

March, 25, 2010
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Butler did it.

After blowing a 10-point halftime lead, the Bulldogs scored 11 straight points in the final minutes to shock No. 1-seeded Syracuse 63-59 in the West Regional semifinals at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night.

The Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Butler, which has the country's longest winning streak at 23 games and hasn't lost since Dec. 22, plays the winner of Thursday night's game between No. 2-seeded Kansas State and No. 6-seeded Xavier in Saturday's West Regional finals.

With a victory on Saturday, Butler would play in the Final Four in its home city of Indianapolis next weekend.

After trailing 35-25 at the half, the Orange came out firing in the second half. Syracuse went ahead 54-50 on Kris Joseph's dunk with 5:23 to play. But then Butler guard Ronald Nored sank a 3-pointer to make it 54-53. After Matt Howard made a layup to give the Bulldogs a 55-54 lead with 2:41 left, Willie Veasley scored five straight points -- on a 3-pointer and tip-in -- to make it 60-54.

Syracuse becomes the second No. 1 seed to be eliminated from the NCAA tournament, joining Midwest Regional No. 1 seed Kansas, which lost to No. 9-seeded Northern Iowa 69-67 in the second round.

Gordon Hayward led the Bulldogs with 17 points on 4-for-7 shooting. Shelvin Mack added 14 points with five assists, and Veasley scored 13 points with two steals.

Wes Johnson led the Orange with 17 points and nine rebounds, and Andy Rautins had 15 points. The Orange were ultimately undone by 18 turnovers, including 12 in the first half.

Butler's victory over the Orange probably won't come as that big of a shock. The Bulldogs have become an NCAA tournament staple, making the field nine times in the past 14 years. They've made the Sweet 16 three times in the past four seasons and now they're one victory away from one heck of a homecoming next weekend.

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Valparaiso coach Homer Drew has seen plenty of Butler teams in his 30 years of coaching -- much more so since Valpo made the switch from the Mid-Continent Conference to Horizon League in 2007 -- and his diagnosis of the 2009-10 Bulldogs after Butler's 74-69 win over Valparaiso Friday night was straightforward, simple, and full of gravitas. Oh, and it was accurate.

"They're the best Butler team I've seen," Drew said.

Bingo. But let's go one further: This Butler team isn't just the best in the history of the program. It's the best in the history of the Horizon League.

Those are the kind of accolades you can realistically bestow on a team that sealed an undefeated conference season Friday, and has the nation's longest win streak at 18. And they managed to do it without their best player and leading scorer, Gordon Hayward.

Hayward was sidelined by back spasms Friday night -- his condition is day-to-day, according to Butler coach Brad Stevens -- and Butler felt his loss. The Bulldogs trailed by one at halftime, the product of a feisty Valpo offense and an inability to get anything going with their own offense. For lack of a better cliche, Hayward is the straw that stirs Butler's rather rich offensive milkshake. Without him, Butler's offense loses its edge.

Then again, the Bulldogs managed to get to 17-0 in the Horizon League before Friday night for reasons other than their star player, and those reasons were evident at the Athletics Recreation Center Friday night. Forward Willie Veasley's outside shooting keyed the stretch that put the Crusaders away in the second half. Forward Matt Howard -- oh, by the way, the 2008-09 Horizon League player of the year -- towers over most Horizon League forwards and can score from either side of the bucket. Shelvin Mack is strong, controlled and effcicient. Ronald Nored is a lockdown defender. Zach Hahn is a pure shooter.

OK, you get the point. Which is this: Stevens has built a very deep, very talented team, a team that managed to go an entire stretch of 18 league games without losing a single one -- the first Horizon League team to ever go 18-for-18 (the fourth to go undefeated). No off nights. Not one upset. And from day one all the way back in January, very little hope for the rest of the league.

Butler's teams are always better than their conference opponents, but rarely are they this much better. After three years at the helm, Stevens deserves much of the credit.

"He's one of the bright young coaches in Division I," Drew said. "He's done a wonderful job."

Again, bingo. At just 32 -- and yes, the man looks even younger -- Stevens hasn't just built an elite program. He's also put himself atop the nation's list of hot young coaching prospects. He's officially a "name" -- a name you should prepare to hear every time a new coaching position becomes available, which is to say, all the time. (That sound you hear is Butler fans putting their fingers in their ears and singing "la la la can't hear you la la la." Who can blame them?) For tonight, though, Stevens and his team can pocket the future for a moment and instead spend some time reflecting on their truly impressive accomplishment: an undefeated conference season.

No upsets here. Butler is your Horizon League champ. Next stop, NCAA tournament. Now things get really interesting.

One man's take on the latest poll

February, 22, 2010
2/22/10
2:13
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Barring something unforeseen, the top four teams in the current poll should end up being the four No. 1 seeds.

Kansas should be the overall No. 1, getting St. Louis as a Midwest Regional home. Kentucky (No. 2 in the poll) will likely be seeded in the East and go to Syracuse. Syracuse, the No. 4 team in the current poll, can’t play at the Carrier Dome as a host, meaning the Orange will likely go to Houston as the South’s top seed. The fourth No. 1 isn’t firm yet, but as of now, it’s hard to argue against the No. 3 team in the current poll, Purdue, which has now won at Ohio State and at Michigan State and has the inside track to win the Big Ten.

Here’s a breakdown of the rest of this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll:

No. 5 Duke: The Blue Devils have clearly proved they are the best team in the ACC and are a possible No. 1 seed.

No. 6 Kansas State: The Wildcats continue to win road games in the Big 12 and are looking like a solid No. 2 seed.

No. 7 West Virginia: Interesting the Mountaineers are here after losing at Pitt the week before. Beating Connecticut on the road Monday would help their seeding cause.

No. 8 Villanova: Nova fans think I’m hard on this team, but I’m about results and as of late the Cats have lost a few. I’m not sure I’ve seen a team slide down only a few spots after losing two games in a week. This is too high for this week.

No. 9 Ohio State: The Buckeyes did lose at home to Purdue, but then won at Michigan State. Ohio State should be in front of Nova.

No. 10 Butler: Love the Bulldogs' spirit, the play of Gordon Hayward, and beating Siena without Willie Veasley. But the Bulldogs haven’t beaten enough quality teams to be ranked No. 10.

No. 11 BYU: I’ve been on the BYU bandwagon from day one. This team continues to win big games in the Mountain West and has a road win at UTEP that will come in handy.

No. 12 New Mexico: I’m still having a hard time digesting how well the Lobos are doing. Steve Alford and Craig “Noodles” Neal have found quite a blend of talent that went under the radar. The Lobos deserve this high ranking and it could be argued they should be ahead of the Cougs since they beat them at home. Circle the major showdown Saturday in Provo between these two teams.

No. 13 Georgetown: The Hoyas lost to Syracuse last week at home. Should they be higher? Maybe. This feels right.

No. 14 Michigan State: It’s still hard to see the Spartans slide so far down in the polls and look like a third-place Big Ten team. Seeing MSU, one of my Final Four picks, at No. 14, doesn’t make sense, but it is justified.

No. 15 Gonzaga: The Zags lost another WCC road game, this time at LMU. I know the Zags are better than they’re showing, but pushing them further down in the polls would've been fair.

No. 16 Pitt: Let me get this straight. Pitt beat West Virginia at home in triple overtime, won at Syracuse earlier and just knocked off Villanova at home. Why are the Panthers at No. 16 again? Please move them up.

No. 17 Tennessee: The Vols picked up a huge win over South Carolina. I picked it as an upset. I was wrong. I like the Vols here.

No. 18 Temple: The Owls will find out soon enough if they’re the best in the A-10. They are getting mileage out of the win over Nova. This is too high for me.

No. 19 Wisconsin: The Badgers barely beat Northwestern at home and lost at Minnesota. Sorry, but Wisconsin could be pushed down a few pegs this week.

No. 20 Vanderbilt: I know the Commodores lost at home to Kentucky but they were coming off a win at Ole Miss. I would have had no problem moving Vandy up a few spots.

No. 21 Texas: The Longhorns lost Dogus Balbay, but won at Texas Tech. That saved face for them after losing at Missouri. I know this team is more talented than it’s showing, but I wouldn’t have had a problem not ranking Texas this week.

No. 22 Northern Iowa: The Panthers get props for winning games, but still haven’t beaten anyone major outside of the win over Old Dominion last Friday. If they weren’t ranked I wouldn’t scream.

No. 23 Texas A&M: The Aggies couldn’t close out Kansas, but then won at Iowa State. We’ll find out more about this squad with a game at Baylor. Aggies should be up a few notches.

No. 24 Richmond: The Spiders are playing better basketball than Temple, so at least swap those teams in the rankings.

No. 25 UTEP: Finally. The Miners deserved to be ranked as they steamroll through Conference USA. The win over Tulsa spoke volumes as to why they should be the team to beat going forward. Derrick Caracter and Randy Culpepper have been big-time players for them this season.

I would have seriously considered putting in Maryland, Virginia Tech, Baylor and Xavier this week. There would have been some tough calls, but I might have tried to find a home for at least two of them, most notably the Terps.

Jimmy V Classic: Hoyas hit the stage

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
2:11
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NEW YORK -- Villanova, Syracuse and West Virginia have all made their marks this season.

These three teams are clearly contenders for the Big East title. Winning elite tournaments in the month of November was a sure sign that none of them is going away anytime soon.

Now it's No. 13 Georgetown's turn.

If the Hoyas beat No. 20 Butler Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden and then go to Anaheim and defeat No. 16 Washington in the Wooden Classic on Saturday, it would be an indication of Georgetown's ability to be a part of the same conversation.

Connecticut could also enter the discussion if it can knock off Kentucky Wednesday night (ESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET) in the SEC-Big East Invitational at MSG, but anything short of that would likely put the Huskies in second-tier status without a headline win so far this season.

This isn't meant to dismiss Cincinnati's chances to challenge for the title after beating Vanderbilt and Maryland and losing to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational. Or to totally dismiss undefeated Seton Hall or one-loss Notre Dame with perhaps the conference MVP in Luke Harangody. But it's not a reach to say the title will likely come down to Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia and then possibly the Hoyas or Huskies.

So, for now, it's up to the Hoyas to prove they belong with the elite in what is turning out to be the best conference yet again.

"This will be good for our team, regardless of how things go to get ready for the conference," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "This will get us ready for the conference with a league type of week. In the Big East, no matter who you play on a Tuesday you're going to play a tough game on the weekend. We want our guys to go through those emotions this week."

Butler and Washington will present two different challenges for the Hoyas. The Bulldogs defend extremely well, run their system fundamentally, and can shoot from mostly all five spots. Washington will want to push the ball, exploit its speed on the perimeter, and get the game in a high-scoring mode.

That's indicative of the Big East, as well, with two different styles on two different courts in the same week.

Georgetown has actually hit the road this season, but wins at Tulane and Savannah State don’t exactly give a true read on the Hoyas yet. And beating Temple by one (46-45), in a game that went down to the final possession in D.C., also doesn’t give a true indication whether the Hoyas are ready for prime time.

Sophomore center Greg Monroe has been solid as expected with nearly 14 points and 10 boards a game. The play of guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman hasn't disappointed either with both players in double figures scoring. The stunner though has been how consistent Jason Clark has been through the first six games, averaging a dozen points, five rebounds and three assists.

"I don't think anyone outside of our program expected this," Thompson III said. "We did because we saw what he could do at both ends of the court. He doesn't get tired and he goes 100 miles an hour on both ends of the floor."

Georgetown goes big the rest of the rotation with Julian Vaughn, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims rotating, something that could cause Butler problems -- especially with Matt Howard having foul issues throughout November.

To Howard's credit, he finally shed the foul-prone label in the last two games by committing just one in a win at Ball State and three in a win over Valparaiso, after fouling out of two games in the 76 Classic in Anaheim and picking up four in the fifth-place loss to Clemson. Prior to that, Howard had fouled out of games at Northwestern and Evansville. That's why he is only averaging 23.8 minutes a game this season, down four minutes from a year ago.

Butler has bigs like Avery Jukes and Garrett Butcher to complement Howard, but if he can't stay on the court against the Hoyas' big men then that will put even more pressure on the shooting of Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Willie Veasley and Ronald Nored.

Georgetown probably has had as little spotlight shone on it this season of any Big East contender, but that's because the games haven't been featured -- yet.

"I don't mind us not getting our pop," Thompson III said. "I don't mind us flying under the radar in November and December. It's all about getting better and if it happens then fine."

If you remember, a year ago Georgetown was a early-season story with a blowout win over rival Maryland in the Old Spice Classic and then a Big East-opening win at Connecticut. But it all went downhill with a flame-out in the league and an NIT berth.

"The good thing for us is that we're not cruising," Thompson III said. "We have a long way to go, a lot of room for improvement. We're pretty good now, but this week will be a big test."

Thompson III is hoping he can get 6-foot-7 freshman forward Jerrelle Benimon increased time again Tuesday night. A high-ankle sprain limited his minutes early in the season and kept him out of three games. He played 14 minutes in the win over American last Saturday and made 2 of 3 shots for four points.

"He's an active big body kid," Thompson III said. "He'll give us even more presence and he's strong and aggressive."

Thompson III wanted to be in the Jimmy V Classic because of the cancer research angle. His wife, Monica, is going on four years of being a breast cancer survivor. Thompson III said Monica is doing well.

"It didn't matter who we played," Thompson III said. "I was going to be in this. They do great work with cancer research."

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