HOUSTON (AP) — That Butler and VCU proudly wear the same small-conference, lovable underdog label is readily apparent.
Less obvious is their shared devotion to the not-so-sexy practice of hard-nosed, aggressive defense — long a trademark of Butler’s game but much more of a surprising late-season development from the running, gunning Rams.
“That’s what’s got us here. For five straight games, we’ve been playing great defense,” VCU forward Jamie Skeen said Friday. “If we play great defense again against Butler, we can probably come out with the win.”
Eighth-seeded Butler (27-9) plays VCU, which has gone from the “First Four” to the Final Four, in the national semifinals Saturday night.
“It’s more of a challenge because you know everybody is looking at their defense, how good they are,” VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said. “We want to come out and try to prove to people we can play defense just as good as them.”
Virginia Commonwealth (28-11) is a shooter’s dream team, a roster full of guys who think they’re in range as soon as the bus nears the arena. (It’s no coincidence TV analyst Steve Kerr joined the Rams for a shooting contest during practice at last weekend’s Southwest Regional.)
The Rams have launched 895 3-pointers this year — no, that’s not a misprint — and are shooting an unbelievable 44 percent from long range just in the NCAA tournament. They’ve finished with 12 3s in three of their first five games, with Brandon Rozzell making six on his own against Georgetown and Bradford Burgess doing the same against Florida State.
But don’t mistake VCU for the Globetrotters.
The Rams are not exactly Wisconsin wannabes, ranking 238th (out of 336 teams) in field goal defense and 134th in scoring defense. They’re 298th in rebounding margin. Yet they’re in the Final Four because they shut down Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State before manhandling top-seeded Kansas.
The Jayhawks, once the top-ranked team in the country, managed just 61 points while shooting 35.5 percent overall and 9.5 percent from 3-point range, all season lows. After not trailing by more than two points the entire tournament, Kansas was down by 17 before halftime.
Overall, Virginia Commonwealth is allowing an average of 62 points in the tournament, almost five fewer than their season average. They’re holding opponents to 39 percent shooting, well below their season average of 44 percent.
“They keep teams off balance,” said Matt Howard, Butler’s leading scorer and rebounder. “You have to be prepared for multiple looks. They’re going to press. They’ll play a little bit of zone. Then they also have a good man-to-man. I think when you’re really scoring the ball really well, too, that gives you energy defensively. I think you can make an argument they’ve scored as well as anybody.
“When you’re able to score and get into those different defenses, I think that really helps their defense.”
If anyone knows that, it’s Butler.
The Bulldogs are one of the soundest fundamental teams in the game — these are the guys who play in the gym where “Hoosiers” was filmed, after all. They can shoot, and they do it quite well. Howard shoots almost 49 percent, while Andrew Smith is averaging almost 9 points a game on 62 percent shooting.
But they came within 2 points of the championship last year thanks to downright nasty defense. Butler shut down K-State’s Jacob Pullen in the regional final, hounding him into 4-of-13 shooting and four turnovers. It harassed Michigan State into 16 turnovers in the Final Four and allowed zero — zip, zilch, nada — fast-break points.
And when the Bulldogs’ season was on the verge of slipping away this year with three straight losses and four in five games, it was defense, not offense, that turned things around.
“We really focused on the defensive end of the floor,” Howard said. “We weren’t guarding the way we normally had, and I think that was really important for us to get back to that.”
Butler now has won 13 straight, best of any of the Final Four teams. It is giving up a measly 59.6 points on average during the stretch, almost eight points better than its average through the first 23 games of the season. Only two teams have managed to get 70 or more off Butler during the streak, both in the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs also outrebounded Old Dominion, the nation’s best team on the glass, 32-29 in the second round.
“Butler is probably the toughest defensive team we’ll face all year,” Burgess said.
That’s saying something, considering VCU played Florida State, which leads the country in field goal defense, in the Southwest Regional semifinal.
“Butler is much more sound. They’re not going to make any type of defensive mistakes,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We have to get into the paint and not always to shoot the ball. We’ve got to touch the paint to pass. We have to make the extra pass on the perimeter. We have to use shot fakes. You have to finish with strength.
“One thing that great defensive teams all have in common is they’re extremely physical, they’re aggressive. If you don’t take the fight to them, then you’re going to be in for a long night.”
First one to 60 gets to play for the title.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)