How they got here
VCU (Southwest Region champions)
W 59-46 over USC (First Four)
W 74-56 over (6) Georgetown
W 94-76 over (3) Purdue
W 72-71 over (10) Florida State
W 71-61 over (1) Kansas
Butler (Southeast Region champions)
W 60-58 over (9) Old Dominion
W 71-70 over (1) Pittsburgh
W 61-54 over (4) Wisconsin
W 74-71 (OT) over (2) Florida
The first semifinal at Reliant Stadium should be a good one, not even considering the obvious storyline of two teams from non-BCS conferences meeting in the Final Four. Shaka Smart's Rams, a team few had making the field of 68 on Selection Sunday, have not only taken advantage of their good fortune but have been impressive in doing so.
VCU has won four of their five NCAA Tournament games by ten points or more, most recently jumping Kansas after a 6-0 deficit to win the Southwest Region final in San Antonio on Sunday. The words of the naysayers have motivated this group, but most importantly they've played their best basketball of the season at just the right time.
"Our video guys are constantly taping all the things that the prognosticators say," remarked Coach Smart on Friday afternoon. "We print off every single article that talks about our game, that talks about Butler. We'll certainly use some of the things that are said."
As for the Bulldogs, they've won 13 straight games since the much-talked about loss at Youngstown State on February 3rd. Brad Stevens made the decision to use point guard Ronald Nored as a reserve, allowing junior guard Shelvin Mack to make more plays on the ball and players across the board have stepped up. Chrishawn Hopkins is a good example of this, as he came off the bench to make a couple important plays in the Elite 8 win over Florida. Mack and Matt Howard are the two "stars" for Butler, and when they're at their best the Bulldogs exemplify every aspect of the "Butler Way".
Guard play is a staple of basketball period much less making a run in the NCAA Tournament, and good examples of this will be on display on Saturday evening. Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, who very nearly left the VCU program after the coaching change two years ago, runs the show for the Rams offensively. Averaging 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game on the season, the Floridian has tallied five assists or more in eight of the last nine games.
In what was arguably the best offensive performance of any team in the Big Dance to date Rodriguez handed out 11 assists in the Purdue win, a game in which VCU averaged 1.36 points per possession (North Carolina scored 102 in their win over LIU but on 93 possessions). Rodriguez's ability to put his teammates in the best position possible to score has led to impressive offensive showings from a number of players, not just forward Jamie Skeen.
Skeen (15.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) was outstanding in the win over Kansas, scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against the Jayhawks' highly-touted frontcourt. The matchup between the Wake Forest transfer and Matt Howard will be a tough one, but there's no doubt that Skeen can get the job done.
"[Skeen] is probably the best low-post scorer in the tournament," said Rodriguez. "I think if we get him the ball, we'll be able to play with him and do some things we did against Kansas. If he comes out aggressive, ready to attack, then I think we'll be fine."
On the perimeter the Rams have a number of experienced contributors, from wing Bradford Burgess to guards Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell. Burgess and Rozzell both shot 40% or better from beyond the arc, and VCU has shot 40% or better in each of the last four games. Butler limits opponents to 32.6% from three on the season so something's got to give there. VCU's offense sparks their defense, a full-court pressure they refer to as "havoc". Is it outright running? No, each of these teams is right around 66 possessions/game on the season. But what happens within those possessions will likely determine the outcome on Saturday.
Butler does a good job of valuing the basketball, turning the ball over just 11 times per game on the season. VCU has forced opponents to turn the ball over on 22% of their possessions, with Florida State handing it over 23% of the time and Kansas 19% last weekend. Mack, Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored will all be key in this aspect of the game if the Bulldogs are to play within their comfort zone.
"You have to be prepared for multiple looks," said Howard of VCU's defensive strategy. "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."
Howard (16.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Mack (15.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.6 apt) are the offensive leaders for Butler but they've got other players who can hurt VCU if the Rams don't account for them. Vanzant's averaging three times as many points per game as he did last season, and his growth is a big reason why the Bulldogs overcame important personnel losses to return to the Final Four. Vanzant's reached double figures just once in the NCAA Tournament (Wisconsin) but he's tallied four assists in two of the four wins and grabbed seven rebounds in the win over Florida.
Nored's biggest contribution will more than likely come on the defensive end, where he ranks among the nation's best when it comes to on-ball defenders. His job offensively is primarily to get guys the best possible looks, and with a team field goal percentage of 44.3% Butler's done a good job of that for much of the season. Butler hasn't shot below 40% from the field since their win over Detroit back in February, and in the nine games since they've held their opponents below that mark four times.
Also important offensively are forwards Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith. Marshall, who comes off the bench, scored 10 in the win over Florida and has scored 23 points in the last three games (7.7 ppg; averaging 5.9 on the season). Smith has surpassed his scoring average of 8.8 ppg just once in the NCAA Tournament (11 vs. ODU) but he shoots 62% from the field and understands his role. Going up against Skeen, Juvonte Reddic and Toby Veal (the latter two have been important contributors up front), Marshall and Smith will need to contribute if the Bulldogs are to win.
Also impacting the tempo will be rebounding, something the Bulldogs have been better at throughout the course of the season. VCU is a minus-3.8 on the season in rebounding margin, and while they've navigated that issue to this point the Rams were a minus-15 against Florida State and minus-10 against Kansas. If VCU can promote a game of "havoc" they'll be able to do so once again. But accomplishing such a feat against Butler is far easier said than done.