HOUSTON -- Butler’s two-year run in the NCAA tournament will go down in the history of the sport as one of the more remarkable streaks in the modern era. Two years. Two national title games.
The first one ended on a last possession miss against mighty Duke. The second one will come against Connecticut or Kentucky, both elite programs.
Two shots at winning a title in a two year-span is phenomenal for any school, regardless of conference. Yet the unassuming Bulldogs are again on the cusp of a national title. Butler is now a consistently successful program -- not just a team that can win a game or two in March.
Butler beat VCU 70-62 Saturday night at Reliant Stadium in what was billed as the undercard in the first of two national semifinals. But the way the Bulldogs are playing this month, in this tournament, it’s hard to call them anything but a headline act.
Sure, the numbers say Butler is a No. 8 seed and seeds this low aren’t supposed to play for national championships. Trends like that are meaningless now, though.
Butler has a first-round NBA draft pick in junior Shelvin Mack, who dominated his position against the Rams, scoring 24 points, making 5 of 6 3-pointers and going 8-of-11 from the field.
Senior forward Matt Howard didn’t have his best shooting game (3-of-10), and did get in foul trouble with four, but he was a beast from the free throw line (11-of-12). He also continued to get the offensive rebounds when they mattered most. Howard pushed a tight four-point game to an unreachable six in the final minute when he converted off a Shawn Vanzant miss.
The Bulldogs were bitten by VCU’s 3-point shooting for a stretch in the first half and at the start of the second. Jamie Skeen also had his way with Butler at times and scored 27 points. But Skeen missed three critical layups and couldn’t beat the Bulldogs by himself. Joey Rodriguez was negated, save a nice back-door dish and one 3-pointer. That was his only field goal after missing seven shots.
Butler had the better role play, too, as Zach Hahn buried a pair of 3s and converted a nice reverse layup, all within the span of about two minutes. Coming into the game, he'd scored a total of nine points in this year's NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs looked as if they were going to be beaten at one point when VCU made its run to take an eight-point lead seven minutes into the first half. But we’ve learned the Bulldogs find ways to win better than any other team in the tournament, perhaps, the past two seasons.
Butler lost five Horizon League games this season, including three in a row at one point. But the Bulldogs won the games they had to win in March. They took the Horizon League tournament title in Milwaukee. They survived against Old Dominion and Pitt with last-possession wins. They withstood a surge from Wisconsin, then beat Florida in overtime.
VCU had its own tremendous run in this tournament, winning five games -- including one in the first-ever First Four -- to get to the Final Four. The Rams knocked off "power six" conference teams USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and regional top-seed Kansas. But in Houston, it was another mid-major school that couldn’t be beaten.
Butler might always be referred to as a mid-major, but one thing is certain. The Bulldogs will do something the elite programs often only dream about: They will play for a national championship two years in a row.