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March 26, 2010
Hello Butler
Goodbye 'Cuse

by John Gasaway

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Butler, like Memphis back in the Calipari days, dominated its conference so thoroughly this season (18-0) that the wins became moot in terms of the team's national perception. As a result the Bulldogs were given a rather tenuous five-seed in the NCAA tournament. Brad Stevens' team would face a tough test right away in an underrated UTEP team. And then even if they made it past the Miners, Butler would have its work cut out in the second round in the form of Vanderbilt. Or so the thinking went. But until such time as we could see the Bulldogs up against one of these major-conference heavies, we just couldn't know how good they really are, right?

(5) Butler 63, (1) Syracuse 59 [64 possessions]
The Orangemen shot better than Butler in this game but they had fewer chances to shoot due to two problems, one old and one new. The new problem was poor offensive rebounding. You may have assumed that the Big East regular season champions would brush aside the undersized Bulldogs on the offensive glass, but it didn't work out that way. Syracuse got to just 26 percent of their own misses. Arinze Onuaku would have come in really handy here.

And the old problem was turnovers. I spent some of this year yelling and waving my arms and saying this team wasn't yet a juggernaut, that they had some serious turnover issues to work out. But even I couldn't have envisioned Jim Boeheim's team coughing the ball up on 28 percent of their trips in a Sweet 16 game. The net effect was to give the Bulldogs 11 extra possessions. Butler was actually just 6-of-24 on their threes, but two of those makes came in the last 3:14 (courtesy of Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley), as the Bulldogs closed the game with a 13-5 run. For most of that stretch run, Nored was making Andy Rautins miserable, shadowing him everywhere on the floor and preventing him from getting open looks. Wes Johnson led the Orange with 17 points, but with Rautins bottled up the 'Cuse offense looked lost during those critical last three minutes.

(2) Kansas State 101, (6) Xavier 96 (2OT) [90]
It should never have come to this. The Wildcats had this game safely tucked away, 72-69 with five seconds left in regulation, when they tried to foul Xavier's Terrell Holloway before he could attempt a game-tying three. Denis Clemente grabbed Holloway, but the officials didn't call anything. So it was left to Chris Merriewether to foul Holloway again, only this time the Musketeer guard had the presence of mind to fling the ball toward the basket just as he was being hacked. Three free throws and we're into OT, where, incredibly, KSU scored literally every time down the floor and again looked to have things in hand. Until Jordan Crawford sank a 35-footer to send the game into a second OT.

This is a very impressive win for Frank Martin's team, more impressive than people realize. Xavier didn't turn the ball over and didn't commit all that many fouls (compared to K-State, anyway), and yet still the Musketeers were sent home, eventually. In the first OT period, Curtis Kelly looked like precisely the kind of dependable post scorer that he was branded as being upon arrival from Connecticut in the preseason. And while I may be puzzled by why Denis Clemente takes so many shots when he has a certain bearded teammate, it worked out.

Now, looking forward, I'm taking bets on how long it takes K-State to get Matt Howard into foul trouble. I'll say 90 seconds.

(1) Kentucky 62, (12) Cornell 45 [64]
Give the Big Red credit. If Kentucky brought them back down to earth (and of course they did--Cornell scored 1.45 points per trip against Wisconsin and 0.70 in this one) the team from Ithaca at least hung around and gave John Calipari's team a better game that Wake Forest did. Still, this was a tellingly dominant defensive display from UK. Calipari always got his Memphis teams to play defense this well, it's true. But there were plenty of reasons to doubt he'd be able to get this team to do so. It's his first team in Lexington, they're precociously young, and, most importantly, they're more talented than any team he had in Memphis. As both young and talented, they should be fighting this "play defense" nonsense every inch of the way. Only they're not.

(2) West Virginia 69, (11) Washington 56 [73]
What a defensive slugfest, yes, but on the other hand what an awesome display of offensive rebounding from the Mountaineers, who hauled in 56 percent of their own misses. Kevin Jones recorded five offensive boards and scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. West Virginia needed every one of those offensive rebounds, because Bob Huggins' team also gave the ball away 23 times. (Devin Ebanks alone committed eight turnovers.) So Coach Huggins has the best of both worlds, a win but also the (true) sound bite. The Mountaineers will not beat Kentucky coughing the ball up 32 percent of the time, as they did against the Huskies. (Though give some of the credit there to U-Dub's Justin Holiday, who seemed to be recording dunks on breakaway steals all game long.)

The day's events leave us with some very interesting storylines going forward. Can Butler play in a Final Four where they're the official host school? Can Kansas State reach Indy as the nation's most foul-happy major-conference team? Can Kentucky leave at least one portion of our pre-tournament assumptions intact? And will Bob Huggins really keep wearing that track suit?

We'll have answers to all four questions tomorrow.

John often sports a sassy Huggins-style track suit while answering questions on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Around the Rim (03/26)
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Rookie of the Year (03/26)

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