In what has to be the most unlikely Final Four matchup of all time, the Bulldogs of Butler take their nation's best winning streak of 13 games to Austin to face fellow Cinderella, Virginia Commonwealth. The Final Four stage is nothing new for Butler, having been led by Gordon Hayward and coach Brad Stevens to a semifinal win over Tom Izzo's Michigan State team just last season. What is new is that this will be the first time since the second round of last year's tournament against Murray State that they're not underdogs, because most had Butler falling to Old Dominion in the 8/9 game this year. As of this writing, Vegas has VCU as 2.5 point 'dogs.
Games like this don't adhere to logic or empirical evidence or sometimes even physics. Both of these teams simply should not be here, but they've gotten a few fortunate bounces and made the right plays that thrust them into the national spotlight. Each bounce is going to matter, each second, each breath. Neither this game nor the next game will determine the best team in the country -- simply who's playing the best at the right time. And on that note, let's get to the key matchup.
This is less of an individual offense/defense matchup and more about on-court importance. These will be arguably the two most important players on the court Saturday, and though they may not guard each other for 40 minutes because of Shawn Vanzant or Ronald Nored switching over or either team going zone, it could turn into a battle of play vs. play between them. Mack is second to Kemba Walker of all the remaining players left in breaking his man down off the dribble. He's almost halfback-like in his ability to use his weight to get to the position he wants to in order to have the right angle on the shot. And while clutchness is about as ambiguous a term as there is in basketball, he seems to always come up with the big shot, at least when Matt Howard doesn't hit it first. His 43% field goal shooting this tournament is above his season average of 41%, which has him averaging 21 points in the Dance.
Rodriguez won't be counted on to body him up individually because of the 5 inches and 40 pounds that separate them. He will, however, need to control the tempo of the game and get the Butler bigs into foul trouble. While he's not the best at going to the line, he's crafty enough with the ball that he can set his teammates up in position to make the easy bucket or at least get fouled. He's been dazzling with the handles in the Rams' five tournament games to the tune of 38 assists to just 10 turnovers.
Whoever executes their role in this game will lead their team to the championship game.
This is not VCU's strength. They rank towards the bottom of the nation in the category and have given up 50 offensive rebounds in the last three games. Butler is closer to the middle of the pack, but you can be sure Coach Stevens is figuring out ways to keep Matt Howard, Andrew Smith, and Khyle Marshall around the basket for second chance opportunities. It's amazing that despite the huge rebounding disadvantage, coach Shaka Smart has the Rams this far. If Butler doesn't shoot as poorly as their previous opponents, that could be too many advantages to overcome for VCU.
Somehow lost amid the talk of Skeen, Smart, and Rodriguez has been VCU's leading scorer this tournament in Brad Burgess. The 6'6 forward is a threat from inside and out and could exploit the highly athletic but very raw Khyle Marshall. He leads the team in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, falling just behind Skeen in overall win shares. He hit a season high 6 three's in the Sweet 16 win over Florida State. Getting him involved and wet from the outside will be crucial to VCU's success.
Both teams can stroke the basketball, but because of the way Butler passes the ball as a team, they often find open shots easier. Matt Howard and Jamie Skeen is bound to be a tough matchup inside and Brandon Rozzell should be a tough cover for the Butler guards off the bench like Nored and Zach Hahn. But when it comes down to it, Butler can comfortably go 8-10 deep, while VCU pretty much has a 6-man rotation. I think the Butler guards will be too difficult for VCU's to contain and with Howard, Marshall and Smith going after rebounds, the Bulldogs will force their way into the championship game again.
Butler 76, VCU 65