Building Butler's game plan
Let's get one very obvious thing out of the way: I am not a college basketball coach. Therefore, I am not qualified to offer prescriptive advice to real, actual college basketball coaches. But it is fun to pretend to be a college basketball coach, to build analysis around potential game plans and strategy. In that spirit, and in advance of Saturday's Final Four showdowns, let's engage in a little bit of role-playing.
If you were Butler coach Brad Stevens, how would you prepare your team for VCU?
Offensive game plan: Butler's offense has been the key to the team's success in 2011, long before the Bulldogs rediscovered the lockdown half-court defense that took them to the title game in 2010. If the Bulldogs plan to reprise their appearance in the championship game -- if Butler wants to keep pace with the hottest team in the NCAA tournament -- its offense could very well be the key.
First things first: turnovers. As in, don't commit them. The Bulldogs take care of the ball -- their turnover rate is 17.2 percent this season -- and you'd expect that to continue Saturday. But even if Butler does avoid turning the ball over against Virginia Commonwealth's spitfire full-court pressure, VCU has a way of flustering opponents by getting them to play faster and less organized than they'd otherwise prefer. Butler has to avoid getting caught up in that pace; unless there are easy baskets to be had off the press break, the Bulldogs would be wise to slow things down, set up the half-court offense, and proceed as usual.
Proceeding as usual means getting lots of good looks for Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. The good news? VCU is likely to play at least some 2-3 zone -- the Rams have been using a zone off and on throughout the tournament -- and Howard and Mack are tremendous zone-busters. Howard especially has expanded his game: According to Synergy Sports Technology, the forward is Butler's most efficient spot-up perimeter shooter. The emergence of Andrew Smith as a reliable post contributor has allowed Howard to play more of a high-post flex role, and that versatility could be key when Howard gets open looks.
Defensive game plan: Guard the 3. Guard the 3. Guard the 3. This sounds simple, and perhaps overemphasized, but if you want to stop this Virginia Commonwealth team, you can't possibly overstate the importance of guarding every 3-point shot. Your other option? Let the Rams shoot, and hope this is the game they finally cool off. Good luck with that.
No, you have to dedicate yourself to stopping VCU's array of unconscious shooters. But that doesn't mean Butler has to wait around for Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell to catch the ball. The key is stopping point guard Joey Rodriguez. Rodriguez might be the quickest player in the tournament, and his ability to get past the first defender and create penetration has been the main reason Skeen, Burgess and Rozzell have gotten so many open shots in their five tournament wins.
Butler has something of a secret weapon in this regard: Ronald Nored. Nored is a premier perimeter defender, the kind of player who attacks his assignment with relentless focus. He is one of the few players in the entire tournament field capable of making life difficult for Rodriguez, and if life is difficult for Rodriguez, life gets collectively difficult for the rest of the Rams. It's simple enough: Butler has to stop VCU at the point of attack. Rodriguez is the point of attack.
The VCU player Butler is most worried about: Rodriguez is the key stop. Skeen is the Rams' most talented offensive player. But Burgess and Rozzell are the players who should keep Stevens up at night. When both are making their open 3s -- which, in March, is roughly translated to "when either one touches the ball" -- the Rams are pretty much unstoppable.
Butler wins if: Rodriguez struggles to penetrate and/or VCU's shooters fail to get good looks from the perimeter; the Bulldogs contain Skeen from the outside-in; Howard gets open shot-up jumpers and Mack creates havoc on ball screens; and Butler steadfastly refuses to be drawn into an up-tempo footrace.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.
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