Butler Begins Campaign for Third Straight NCAA Finals Appearance

Erik SchultzCorrespondent INovember 15, 2011

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04:  Ronald Nored #5 of the Butler Bulldogs passes the ball against Niels Giffey #5 of the Connecticut Huskies during the National Championship Game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at Reliant Stadium on April 4, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It can certainly be argued that no team in college basketball has enjoyed more success the past two seasons than Butler.  It cannot be argued, however, that no team in college basketball has more NCAA tournament wins the past two seasons than Butler.

Coach Brad Stevens has led his team to a 10-2 NCAA Tournament record the past two years, with both losses coming in the National Championship Game, to Duke and Connecticut, respectively. 

Butler’s 2010 trip to the Final Four and final game was incredibly impressive, as a No. 5 seed. Last year’s repeat return to the very same spot—40 minutes from a national championship—was 10 times as stunning. 

Butler had to play nearly flawless basketball for six weeks just to make the tournament, winning nine in a row—including the Horizon League championship—after losing their fifth conference game on February 3. Despite the late-season run, the Bulldogs still had the odds stacked heavily against them as a No. 8 seed entering the Big Dance. 

After last-second wins over Old Dominion and top-seeded Pittsburgh in the first two rounds, Butler dismantled fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. Their run seemed like it would finally end in the Elite Eight, against Florida. But yet again, they found a way, coming from six down in the final two minutes to force overtime, and eventually winning 74-71. 

The unlikeliest of Final Four matchups with No. 11-seeded VCU yielded a great opportunity for Butler to return to the championship game, of which they took advantage. 

Butler will look to return to the Final Four for the third consecutive season
Butler will look to return to the Final Four for the third consecutive seasonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

As impressive a feat as it was for Butler to reach two straight championship games, everyone remembers how equally unimpressive their actual performance was in the game itself.  The Bulldogs shot just 18.8 percent, scoring just 41 points in a 12-point loss to UConn. 

The postgame press conference was rough to watch. Standouts Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard were forced to suffer through the same questions, and each answered them as quietly and succinctly as possible.

For Howard, a senior, there were no more chances. For Mack, a junior with serious pro prospects, another chance to win it all may have just seemed too impossible to consider. Mack did ultimately declare for the NBA draft, and is currently a part of the Washington Wizards roster, waiting for a shot to play.

With Mack and Howard—the heart of the past two years’ teams—departed, it would seem there is absolutely no chance for Brad Stevens’ team to get back to where they were. However, this is Butler.  They expect to make the NCAA Tournament every year. And once they get there, they will put up one heck of a fight, regardless of personnel.

Speaking of personnel, there are some key players returning from last year’s runner-up team that will give Butler fans reason for optimism. 

Center Andrew Smith appears on the verge of a breakout season. The 6’11” junior averaged 8.5 points and 5.6 boards a game last season, and averaged nearly seven rebounds a game in the Bulldogs’ six NCAA tournament games. Smith will have to adjust to playing without Matt Howard, however, meaning he will be focused on heavily by opposing defenses. This will be especially true against the somewhat smaller interior defenders in the Horizon League. 

Butler's success this season may depend on center Andrew Smith
Butler's success this season may depend on center Andrew SmithPool/Getty Images

Shooting guard Ronald Nored will be looked upon to take over as the leader for Stevens this season.  The senior has been an integral piece for each of the past two runner-up teams, playing the role of lockdown defender on the opposing team’s best perimeter player. 

He has never been a huge scorer, averaging just six a game last season. However, he will need to take on a bigger offensive role this season. He just may be able to handle that role with Mack no longer by his side in the backcourt.

Forward Khyle Marshall will be the wild card for Butler this season. The 6’ 6” sophomore was erratic through much of his first season, but showed flashes of brilliance.

Marshall also had some respectable efforts in March, with a 10-point, seven-rebound effort against Florida in the Elite Eight win. For the tournament, Marshall averaged over six boards a game. He will need about that same average in rebounding throughout this season, along with a significant increase from his 5.8 point per game average last season.

Senior forward Garrett Butcher and junior guard Chase Stigall are two additional pieces from the past two runner-up seasons. Each of them have been role players throughout their careers, and will be leaned upon more heavily this season. Their experience in being involved in high-pressure games in March will certainly be a boost for this year’s Bulldog team.

Sophomore Chrishawn Hopkins provided a spark in Butler’s season opener, an 80-77 overtime loss at Evansville. Hopkins led the team with 22 points, including making 3-of-8 on three-pointers. If he can provide consistent scoring totals going forward, the loss of Mack may not seem quite as daunting to Butler faithful.

As for the schedule, there will be some excellent opportunities in November and December for Butler to show they will still be a force on the national stage. On Saturday, Butler will host Louisville, currently ranked seventh in the nation. It will be a chance at redemption for the Bulldogs, who were blown out in Louisville to open last season. 

In December, Butler has three high-profile non-conference games. The first will be another home game, against Xavier, a team expected to be in the top 20 throughout the season. The next test will be a much anticipated Hoosier State battle with Purdue, in downtown Indianapolis. The final test of the month comes just three days later, as the team will travel west to take on Gonzaga, another preseason top 25 team, in Spokane. 

If Butler can split these four games—which seems reasonable given that three of them will be played in Indianapolis—they should have the foundation for a good case to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, should they not win the Horizon League tournament.    

The Bulldogs will certainly have their challengers in the league this year, particularly in Cleveland State and Detroit. Cleveland State already has an enormous win at Vanderbilt, and should be tough all season with a very experienced team led by guards D’Aundray Brown and Jeremy Montgomery. 

Detroit is regarded as the most talented team in the league, led by Eli Holman, who nearly averaged a double-double last season and is a top candidate for league Player of the Year. They were very competitive against Notre Dame on Monday night without Holman, losing by just six in South Bend.

However, this is Butler. No matter the expectations, they are still king of their conference. Much like Kansas in the Big 12, or Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, the title is theirs until someone else takes it from them. 

What does that mean? Expect Butler to find a way to get back to the dance, even if it isn’t always pretty. Once they get there, anything’s possible, even if it isn't always pretty.