Virginia Commonwealth vs. Butler
Matchup:This would be a Cinderella story, if one could only figure out which team the glass slipper belongs to. VCU has ridden its excellent three-point shooting from a "First Four" game against USC to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Butler has drawn on its experience from a season ago to carry it round after round. Neither team was expected to make this far.
When VCU has the ball, expect to see a perimeter player driving the lane looking to kick the ball out to an open shooter. This is especially effective with point guard Joey Rodriguez, but all of the VCU players can handle the ball and knock down an open shot from beyond the arc. It is paramount to Butler's success that it defend the three-point line well and force this game into a battle of who has the better frontcourt players.
When Butler has the ball, expect to see a half-court game, with Matt Howard and others running ball screens to free up shooters and players cutting toward the rim. The more Howard can create around the rim the better, as he is an excellent post player and rebounder. VCU will look to get him in foul trouble and allow Jamie Skeen to patrol the paint.
VCU Rams, Southwest No. 11 Seed
Backcourt: Senior Joey Rodriguez is the "quarterback" of this team. He initiates the offense and uses his great court vision to set up his teammates to make plays. Through five tournament games he has a 38-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio. He possesses good speed to start fastbreaks and find eager teammates looking to shoot, before the defense has had a time to set up. Rodriguez is not a great shooter but can knock down an outside shot and is the team's leading free-throw percentage shooter (81 percent). Junior Bradford Burgess and senior Brandon Rozell are the team's two best three-point shooters in an offense predicated on finding the open man in transition and on kick-outs. The two have combined to shoot more than 52 percent (30-57) from beyond the arc in the tournament.
Frontcourt: Jamie Skeen has a great inside/outside game that gives opposing bigs trouble. He has great quickness in the post and can beat slower opponents to find his shot. When any of the guards drive into the lane he floats outside as his defender slides over to help, thus leaving himself open for a shot outside. Kansas didn't prepare for this situation, and Skeen burnt them for four three-pointers. Skeen's range hampers VCU's ability to crash the boards, and it's not surprising that the Rams rank 217th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. Their other bigs are Bradford Burgess, who plays as a wing, and center D.J. Haley, who has great size at 7-foot but as a freshman has yet to find his game. Juvonte Reddic, another freshman, plays more than Haley and is a pure post player. Defensively, this group can be exposed if Skeen is not in the game as physical bigs who play around the rim can give them trouble.
X-Factor: VCU is at its best when it's making shots from outside, and no one on the team has hit more three pointers (78) this season than Brandon Rozell. As the team's third-leading scorer (11.8 ppg), he comes off the bench and provides instant offense. Against Georgetown he scored a season-high 26 points with six three-pointers. For the tournament, he's averaged 3.4 made three-pointers a game. It's possible, if not likely, that Butler will put defensive stopper Ronald Nored on Rozell at times - and this is where Rozell must continue to come through for VCU. The Rams are 15-3 this season when Rozell scores in double digits, compared to just 6-7 when he does not.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
Southern California, 59-46
Florida State, 72-71
They'll Win If: they continue to stay hot from outside. It's no secret that VCU likes to shoot the three ball. In the tournament they've made 43.8 percent of their shots from outside, which has translated into 42.9 percent of their offense. In the regional final, Kansas didn't defend the three-point line well, and VCU took advantage with nine first-half three-pointers. Butler has held the opposition to 30.4 percent shooting from outside in its tournament games, something that the Rams will look to overcome. If VCU does not shoot well from outside, it's highly likely that it loses this game as Butler will dominate the glass with Matt Howard and throw multiple bodies at Skeen down low. AS the saying goes, you live by the three, you die by the three.
Butler Bulldogs, Southeast No. 8 Seed
Backcourt: Junior Shelvin Mack has been a one-man wrecking crew offensively for Butler this season and in this tournament. Against Pittsburgh, he hit a season-high seven three-pointers en route to a 30-point night. In his last game, Florida got all they could handle as he dumped in a team-high 27 points and four assists. Maybe most impressive, Mack steps up in big moments and knocks down shots when asked to. As a team leader, he is to Butler what Joey Rodriguez is to VCU. Also in the backcourt is senior Shawn Vanzant, who has quietly averaged eight points and at least one three-pointer per game in the tournament. Rounding out the crew is junior Ronald Nored, who silences all would-be shooters and ball-handlers he is put on. Vanzant and Nored must watch their fouls as the two have combined to foul out of nine games this season.
Frontcourt: Senior Matt Howard has been vital to Butler's success this season. He led the team in scoring, rebounding, block shots and in dramatic plays to end tournament games. Against Old Dominion he made a last-second putback, to win, 70-68. In the next round against Pitt, he rebounded a Nasir Robinson missed free throw and knocked down a free-throw shot of his own, to give his team a 71-70 victory. Overall, he works well in the post with passes over the top or at his hip, can spot-up and knock down a mid-range shot and can even slide out and hit a three-point shot on occasion. He's complemented by sophomore Andrew Smith and freshman Khyle Marshall, who give Butler good size up front. Should Howard end up in foul trouble, something that has plagued him in the past, it will be Marshall's job to control the low post. Against Florida, he had seven offensive rebounds to go with 10 points off the bench.
X-Factor: Matt Howard can be the difference maker in this game with his rebounding and ability to score in the low post. VCU is poor at keeping opponents off the glass in general, but especially when its on defense. Butler must take advantage of this when it goes small to get more of its shooters on the court and get Howard involved around the rim on lobs and putbacks. If Howard gets into foul trouble, as he has been known to do, Butler's advantage isn't completely lost as Khyle Marshall can come in and help, but it is minimized. Howard has racked up a eight fouls in four tournament games, so he's doing well as of late.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
Old Dominion, 60-58
They'll Win If: They defend the three-point line and protect the ball. Butler must not allow VCU to get open looks, be it in transition off steals (VCU ranks 12th in steal percentage) or on kickouts when a VCU player (Joey Rodriguez) puts the ball on the floor. It's not enough to win the rebounding margin, as VCU consistently gets out-rebounded, yet wins games because it shoots so well from outside. It's also not enough for only Ronald Nored, Butler's best defensive player, to defend well. Everyone must contest shots from the outside. It's when a team defends the outside shot and couples this with a rebounding margin that VCU loses.
With Butler facing an opponent that is very effective from the outside, it's reminiscent of a game the Bulldogs played earlier in the season against Duke. The game was played in East Rutherford, N.J., and the Blue Devils were led by a then-healthy Kyrie Irving. In the second half with Butler trailing only by one, Shelvin Mack suffered leg cramps and was forced from the remainder of the game. The Bulldogs went on to lose, 70-82. The interesting thing is Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly went a combined 3-16 from behind the arc. Only Irving and Andre Dawkins could find their shot, and together they were 5-10 from three. Fast forward nearly four months, and we could see a similar game with Butler able to quiet many of VCU's outside shooters, only this time Butler comes out on top.