I tend to be suspicious of quick explanations for a result that surprises people, whether that explanation involves tired Kansas State legs or a putatively brilliant Butler coach. But it is true that on the occasions when I've seen the Bulldogs this season, I've been tremendously impressed by Brad Stevens' game-planning. Meaning my tendency isn't always helpful. Quick explanations can be correct.
"Brilliant" is an awfully strong term, but we can phrase this in precise neutral-court terms. Perpetually attractive option for open positions Mark Few has more talent on his team than Stevens has on his, and Few's team lost to Syracuse by 22. Butler, conversely, has fared somewhat better these past seven days. Indeed as long as we're handing out the coaching kudos, it bears repeating that the team that came closest to beating these Bulldogs--and they came within a possession--was Billy Kennedy's Murray State Racers.
(5) Butler 63, (2) Kansas State 56 [65 possessions]
Any basketball game takes place in the eye of the beholder, and eyes are subjective. That being said, if I'd been announcing this game you would have heard two names about three dozen more times than you did: Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley. Butler, instructively, played man-to-man on every single possession in this game, and Nored and Veasley guarded Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, respectively.
As it happens I saw Kansas State this year more times than I did Butler, and every time I watched the Wildcats I had to wonder what would happen if an opponent trapped the ball out of the hands of Frank Martin's two mainstays--or simply prevented them from getting it in the first place. Yesterday I got to find out. Nored in particular had no help-defense responsibilities whatsoever. He just stuck to Pullen, and the irony here had to be particularly sharp for the K-State junior. Nored did to Pullen yesterday precisely what Pullen did to BYU's Jimmer Fredette in the second round.
I assumed coming into the game that Butler would refuse to send Kansas State to the line as much as Martin would like, and I was right. Instead, the Bulldogs were flat-out daring the Wildcats to give the ball to Curtis Kelly on the pick-and-rolls that Kelly would start out top, usually for Pullen. A couple times K-State did just that and when they did Kelly either scored or should have. But Stevens had sized up his opponent well. For all their accomplishments this season (and I actually agree wholeheartedly with my colleagues that Pullen's tour de force on both sides of the ball against BYU constitutes the single most impressive game any player has had in this tournament), Pullen and Clemente weren't in the habit of letting their teammates carry the scoring load. Yesterday the two Wildcats went 11-of-30 from the field because they were doing exactly what Brad Stevens wanted them to do, doggedly shooting into the teeth of a D designed expressly to stop them.
Kansas State's D forced a lot of turnovers this season, and they did again yesterday (Pullen was credited with six steals). Then again Butler coughed up the ball so many times--on 31 percent of their trips--that there were also a lot of unforced errors included in that total. When the Bulldogs held on to the ball, however, they averaged a remarkable 1.41 points per effective possession. Gordon Hayward scored 22 points on 14 shots and indeed, even with the five turnovers, may have been too good for Butler fans' liking, particularly with that ostentatiously pretty step-back three on Kelly. That was the kind of move that gets NBA tongues wagging, one that gets you on some 2010 mocks. In theory Butler returns virtually their entire team intact next year, but in truth their future is now and it will be played out just 5.8 miles from Hinkle Fieldhouse.
(2) West Virginia 73, (1) Kentucky 66 
I'm tempted to say that when a team goes the entire first half without making a two-point shot, they don't usually end up beating a one-seed in that very same game. But of course there is no "usually" in effect here. Not making any twos before halftime is simply too rare an occurrence, much more rare, of course, than the Big East tournament champion taking out the best team in the SEC. Others may have found this result to be a "big-time upset," but for better or worse I saw this game as somewhat more analogous to a coin-flip. Both teams outscored their conferences this season by roughly comparable margins.
Heck, maybe I should have liked West Virginia's chances a little more. Here were two excellent defenses facing off against each other, both of whom are unusually long and athletic, both of whom are unusually punitive with respect to opposing offenses possessing sufficient temerity to attempt two-point shots. Wouldn't there figure to be some threes?
There were. Fully 46 percent of the shot attempts in this contest were launched from beyond the arc. Which, of course, is precisely where Kentucky lost the game. I realize the Mountaineers are viewed as not especially accurate from the field--I view them that way, anyway--but compared to John Calipari's group the men from Morgantown were practically lights-out from three-point land this year. Never mind Bob Huggins' reputation for totally non-Beilein ball. The truth is in Big East play West Virginia was notably more likely to try a three than the average team in their league, and the Mountaineers' accuracy from out there was right at the Big East mean. Conversely Kentucky shot threes but rarely in SEC play, with good reason. The Cats made just 30 percent of their treys in league play. Yesterday they went 4-of-32, bringing their two-game total in the field of Carrier Dome three-point shooting to 6-of-48.
There were times in the second half where Joe Mazzulla looked more like John Wall than John Wall, taking the ball from end to end and scoring the basket. Da'Sean Butler may have been 0-of-7 on his twos, but he did score 18 points by making his free throws and going 4-of-8 on his threes. And Devin Ebanks was the soul of shot-selection discretion, somehow making more than half his twos on a day when those things were being outlawed. Some of the stats in this game were a fluke, but the outcome was not.
As for Kentucky, how stern and remorseless is this thing called the NCAA tournament? All UK did was have the dream 12 months as a program. This Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of Calipari's hiring. The new coach then reeled in DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, and Eric Bledsoe. Patrick Patterson elected to stay. The Cats stormed through the regular season, secured their one-seed, and arrived in the Elite Eight with a 35-2 record. All UK did was have the dream 12 months as a program. And all it got them was equality with the loser of today's Tennessee-Michigan State game. This tournament is no place for the faint of heart, no matter who's hosting it.
John tends to accept the quick explanations for surprises that he offers on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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