Fool me twice? Butler can win it all

After his team lost four of its final five games to close the regular season, Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart arrived at practice on March 1 with a page from the calendar on his desk.

February had been a brutal month for the Rams. Once seemingly destined for the NCAA tournament, a flurry of losses appeared to have them on the outside of the bubble at 21-10, needing to make some noise at the Colonial Athletic Association tournament or face a disappointing end in the NIT.

“It was one of those big desk calendars,” Smart said. “I had a trash can underneath me at the practice gym, and the guys were sitting in front of me, and I had a lighter and set it on fire. That was really symbolic for us.”

Only a couple of weeks earlier, Butler coach Brad Stevens also was struggling to figure out which direction his team was headed. At 18-9 overall and just 9-5 in the Horizon League, the Bulldogs were in danger of missing the NCAA tournament one year after an improbable run to the national championship game.

On Feb. 12, Butler went to its locker room at halftime of a home game against Detroit trailing 34-29. One more loss, and an at-large bid to the tournament was pretty much a pipe dream. Instead, Stevens watched his team play perhaps its best half of the season, roaring back to win 66-51.

“We were really tough. We were really in tune,” he said. “At that moment in time, I thought we were hitting a good stride. You never know where that can take you and how far it can go.”

Those moments of uncertainty and inspiration turned out to be the genesis of an unlikely meeting Saturday in the Final Four. All season long, Butler and VCU were on the verge of playing themselves out of an invitation to the NCAA tournament. Monday, one of them will be 40 minutes away from a national championship.

In the 73-year history of the Final Four, there never has been a more unlikely pairing of teams. With last-possession wins over Old Dominion, Pitt and Florida, Butler became just the fifth No. 8 seed to make it to a national semifinal. VCU, which had to win a play-in game against USC just to get into the main 64-team bracket, is only the third to do it from the No. 11 slot.

At the start of the tournament, it would have been inconceivable for either of them to end up in the final against the winner of Kentucky-UConn. But one of them will be there, trying to become the most unlikely national champion in college basketball history.

And the craziest part? If things fall the right way, one of them will actually have a chance.

With all due respect to what VCU has done in this tournament, winning three of its past four games by double digits, Butler is the team that can take down Kentucky or UConn and be the first champion from outside a power conference since UNLV in 1991.

If it’s ever going to happen for a school like Butler, with 4,000 undergraduates and a tiny athletic budget of $11 million, this is the year.

Without a dominant team in college basketball, this figured to be a wide-open tournament with plenty of upsets and perhaps some wild cards making it to Houston. But even though the names have been surprising, the profiles have not.

You’ve got the team with the best individual performer in the country in UConn and Kemba Walker. You’ve got a team with future pros in Kentucky, led by freshmen stars Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. You’ve got your quintessential hot team in VCU, which is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line in the NCAA tournament.

And then you’ve got Butler, the smartest, most experienced, most composed team in the field.

The Bulldogs don’t necessarily look the part, and they certainly had some issues early this season. But in a tournament like this, where games come down to a possession here or there, it’s hard to discount the impact of winning DNA. And Butler, with guys like Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Shawn Vanzant, has it in bunches.

While the Bulldogs were not expected by many to make the Final Four last season, they entered the NCAA tournament on a 20-game winning streak and had a first-round NBA draft pick in Gordon Hayward. Coming within a bucket of beating Duke for the championship was a great story, but not necessarily a huge shock.

When Hayward left, the expectations for this team were not as high, but still people thought enough of Butler to rank them 16th in the preseason Associated Press poll — ahead of UConn (unranked) and only four spots behind Kentucky.

It took a long time for Stevens to get his team right, almost too long, but in some ways this is an even better Butler team now than last season.

A winner of 13 in a row, Butler doesn’t need to hit a bunch of 3-pointers to win like VCU, nor does it rely on one superstar like UConn. Instead, the Bulldogs will play methodically, execute in the halfcourt, limit mistakes and hit shots when it counts. That’s not a recipe for a Cinderella, that’s the recipe for a champion.

“I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how hard it is to get your kids to forget about what that name on the front of the jersey is,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “This is about bodies in jerseys, not what name is on the jersey.”

In Butler’s case, it’s both. When you’ve played in the national championship game just a year ago, belief isn’t a problem. And when you’ve knocked out Florida, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin in close games to get to the Final Four, neither is talent nor toughness.

Many will view Saturday’s game between UConn and Kentucky as the de facto national championship game, but Butler and VCU certainly won’t believe it. They earned their way here, and in this wacky year of college basketball, even a team in danger of missing the tournament a few weeks ago could end up as the last one standing.