If you watched the final seconds of Butler's dramatic 60-58 win over Old Dominion on Thursday -- and, unless you were stuck at work, of course you did -- you don't need me to tell you that Matt Howard is a handy guy to have on your team. Howard's put-back with one second left on the clock gave the Bulldogs the win, leaving Brad Stevens' team one small detail to attend to before proceeding any further in the brackets: beat the No. 1 seed Pitt Panthers. I think Butler has a chance.
It won't be easy, of course. Jamie Dixon's team wasn't seeded on the top line by accident. This year the Panthers were clearly the best team in the Big East. In a conference that put no fewer than 11 teams in the NCAA tournament, that's saying something. And, anyway, it's extremely rare for a No. 1 seed to lose in the round of 32. It happened to Kansas last year, of course, but prior to the Jayhawks' loss to Northern Iowa you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time the top seed in a region failed to advance to the Sweet 16.
So why would I think a team that lost to Youngstown State can pull off what would clearly be a major upset? Four reasons.
1. Brad Stevens
That annual speculation you now hear about Stevens with regard to just about any major-conference coaching vacancy is no accident. This guy is good. To reach the national championship game last year, Stevens had to get past Jim Boeheim, Frank Martin, and Tom Izzo. Stevens and his staff do an excellent job of zeroing in on exactly what their opponent likes to do -- and taking that away. In the closing minutes of their Sweet 16 game against Syracuse last year, the Bulldogs removed Andy Rautins from the equation almost entirely. Then in the Elite Eight, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen got a taste of the Butler treatment, as the star was held to 14 points on 4-of-13 shooting from the floor. To be sure, a lot of things are going to have to go the Bulldogs' way for them to beat Pitt. But we know going in that Stevens' team will be prepared, relaxed, and confident. They've done this before.
Remember how last year in the tournament offensive rebounding was kind of the "It" stat? It seemed like just about every team that made a deep run was really good at gathering in their own misses. Every team except Butler, that is, which has made a habit out of beating opponents who are outstanding on the offensive glass. Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State all have two things in common. There were all very good offensive rebounding teams last year. And they all lost to the Bulldogs. Then came Duke, still another team that excelled at cleaning the glass on their own end of the floor, and you may remember Stevens' team gave the Blue Devils a pretty good game. Anyway, this trend has clearly carried over to 2011. Old Dominion was an unbelievable offensive rebounding team this year. In CAA action the Monarchs pulled down an incredible 45 percent of their own misses. Next up, Pitt, the sixth consecutive NCAA tournament opponent that Butler has faced that loves to crash the offensive glass. Mind you, I'm not saying the Panthers won't be able to get a few offensive boards -- ODU got 14. I am saying that the Bulldogs know how to work around an opponent with this profile.
You didn't hear much about Butler during the regular season this year, and with good reason. For much of the season the Bulldogs just weren't as good as they were last year. But starting in early February Stevens' team began to perform much closer to the standard set by the team that reached the 2010 national championship game. The difference has been defense. Over their first 11 Horizon League games Butler allowed their opponents to score 1.06 points per possession. Over their last seven league games, however, that number plunged: Horizon teams scored just 0.94 points per trip against this D late in the year. Meanwhile the offense stayed the same (very good) -- in fact all year long this offense has been more or less as efficient as it was last year when Gordon Hayward was still in uniform. They may be just a No. 8 seed in the bracket, but when the Bulldogs play defense, as they've been doing the past six weeks, the can look a lot more like last year's team in a hurry.
About that handy guy to have on your team. Matt Howard simply does what's necessary. He's not the most impressive physical specimen you'll run across in the tournament, and against Pitt he'll be up against the Big East-tested likes of Gary McGhee and Dante Taylor. But this season Howard has added perimeter range to his blue-collar (very Jamie Dixon-like) work ethic, making 44 percent of his threes on the year. So often we tend to think that if a player isn't showing up on mock draft boards he must not be that much of a factor in the NCAA tournament. You're probably not going to see Howard shaking David Stern's hand this summer, but ask an opposing coach just how important this senior is to the Bulldogs. This offense is based on two stars: Howard and Shelvin Mack. And any player that has to be guarded on the perimeter who also draws more than six fouls for every 40 minutes he plays is a potent weapon on offense. Howard needs to stay out of foul trouble, of course, but assuming he does, he makes Butler a tough out.
As I said, Butler beating Pitt is a long shot. Then again we've already seen some long shots win in this tournament. I'm just saying, stranger things have happened.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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