Butler Basketball: Past Midnight for NCAA Tournament Cinderella
It's been one week since Butler fell to Connecticut in the 2011 NCAA Championship Game, leaving the entire nation to wonder for a second consecutive year whether Cinderella would ever ride home in a carriage rather than be stranded in a pumpkin at the Final Four.
This year's edition of March Madness, which was about as crazy as it's ever been thanks in large part to the surprising runs made by the eighth-seeded Bulldogs and the 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth Rams, closed with a whimper as Kemba Walker and UConn strode past Brad Stevens' punchless bunch in the second half on the way to a 53-41 victory.
Now, there's plenty to be said about the Huskies, who will return plenty of talent next season with or without Kemba but who may find themselves weighed down by NCAA sanctions in the wake of investigations into various recruiting improprieties on the part of Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun, but we'll leave that age-old debate about the incongruities of college athletics for another occasion.
What's been lost somewhat in the aftermath of the ho-hum conclusion in Houston is the question of where Butler goes from here.
The Long Road Back to the Final Four
It's rare enough for a small school to see its way through to the Sweet 16 or even the Elite Eight. It's another thing entirely for such a team to sneak its way into the Final Four.
How likely is a third consecutive Final Four for Butler?
It's an even greater anomaly still for a team from a non-BCS conference to play in consecutive national title games like Butler has done the past two years.
As if reaching the NCAA final wasn't tough enough in 2010, the Bulldogs had the odds stacked squarely against them this time around without the services of Horizon League All-Defensive performer Willie Veasley and league player of the year Gordon Hayward, who entered the 2010 NBA Draft after his sophomore season and was taken by the Utah Jazz with the ninth overall pick.
The impact of their absences showed throughout Butler's up and down 2010-11 season, particularly in losses to the likes of Evansville, Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State.
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs still managed to tie for the Horizon League regular season title and win their conference tournament, from which point Butler rode the experience of seasoned veterans like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored all the way to the Final Four.
Odds Are Already Stacked, With Or Without Mack
So, after back-to-back trips to the ball, can Cinderella fit into that slipper for a three-peat?
Well, if you thought two times as the runners up was unlikely for Butler, the third time is about as far from a charm as they come.
Brad Stevens will be without the services of five seniors, three of whom—front court scrapper Matt Howard, sharp shooter Zach Hahn and starting guard Shawn Vanzant—were key cogs in Butler's magical March Madness machinery.
There is also quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding star junior Shelvin Mack, who has yet to decide whether or not he will forfeit his senior season and jump into the 2011 NBA Draft pool. Mack's stock soared with each successive step that Butler took through the tourney, as the 6'3" guard from Lexington, Kentucky averaged 20.3 points while knocking down 23 three-pointers—the fourth-most all time by a player in a single tournament.
With Mack, Butler is a likely top-25 team that just might be in the mix for another deep run through March and possibly into April.
Without him, the Bulldogs would be hard-pressed to come away with the Horizon League title for a sixth year in a row.
Plenty of Reason For Optimism
Not that the cupboard would be entirely bare either way. With or without Mack, the Bulldogs will return starting center Andrew Smith and guard Ronald Nored as well as reserve guard Chase Stigall and impact freshman Khyle Marshall.
Additionally, Brad Stevens has a strong recruiting class headed to Hinkle Fieldhouse in the fall, including 3-star prospects Roosevelt Jones and Kameron Woods, Indiana native Andy Smeathers and Australian import Jackson Aldridge.
If "Mack Attack" does take his talents to the pros, it's expected that Stevens will offer a scholarship to 5'10" guard Anthony Hickey, this year's Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky.
And, of course, let's not forget about Coach Stevens, who is arguably the brightest of the many young stars in the coaching ranks of college basketball today. The "baby-faced" coach has already amassed 117 wins, four Horizon League titles and two trips to the Final Four in just four seasons since being promoted following the departure of Todd Lickliter to the University of Iowa.
All before his 36th birthday, mind you. If that weren't enough, even the late, great John Wooden, a fellow native of the state of Indiana, had praise for Stevens in an article written by Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, saying of Stevens' Bulldogs, "I enjoy watching [him] and very much enjoy their style of play...It looks much different than most other teams today."
Whether or not any or all of this is enough to keep Butler in the hunt for a trip to New Orleans for the 2012 Final Four remains to be seen. Certainly the return of Shelvin Mack would do wonders to promote the Bulldogs' chances of returning to the national spotlight, though there will be plenty of people watching Butler closely and scrutinizing the team's every move throughout the 2011-12 season regardless of who is around.
The only surety regarding next season's Butler Bulldogs is this: they will play their tails off and they won't be taking anybody by surprise.
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