HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 02: Shelvin Mack #1 and Ronald Nored #5 of the Butler Bulldogs celebrates after a play against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the National Semifinal game of the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at Reliant Stadium on April 2, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Second chance opportunities win basketball games. Brad Stevens knows this. Shaka Smart knows this. And on Saturday night in Houston, with a trip to the NCAA championship game on the line, millions of college hoops fans across the country saw firsthand just how beneficial offensive rebounding can be on the grandest of stages.
In a game where both schools did a marvelous job of professing their love for the three-point shot, rather fittingly, the victor was eventually determined by a willingness to bang in the paint. Led by senior Matt Howard and freshman Khyle Marshall, the Bulldogs abused the Rams on the boards 46-30 to post their largest rebounding margin of the tournament. As many as seven Butler players recorded four or more rebounds, a staggering number considering Stevens' rotation includes only eight guys.
Along with a 15-5 edge on the offensive glass (Howard and Marshall combined for 9), Butler's box-out clinic afforded it a 19 to 6 advantage in second chance points, a deficit that serves as the proverbial dagger in the boxscore. The in-house scoreboard read 70-62, but it was (as usual) Butler's elite-level execution that helped send this former Cinderella-turned powerhouse back to the final game.
And none of this would have been remotely possible if it weren't for the contributions of senior big man Matt Howard. Good luck trying to find another player in college hoops who epitomizes what his program is all about better than Howard. He fights, he claws, and he outsmarts bigger, stronger, NBA-coveted players time and time again. And yet, it never gets old seeing him fly all over the court making plays most 6'8", 240 lb. big men would only dream of. In many ways his relentless effort is a microcosm of Butler's improbable run. Because, just like his team, Howard manages to exceed even the loftiest of expectations.
Howard's obvious protege, the 6'7" Marshall, appears to be the x-factor for the Bulldogs heading into Monday night's game. Though he averaged less than four rebounds per game during the regular season, Marshall has turned into a sixth-man extraordinaire during Butler's tourney run. Over his last four games the freshman has recorded 29 rebounds, with 19 of them coming at the offensive end. Both Marshall and Howard each struggle with foul trouble on a consistent basis, but when this team starts to lose itself on the offensive end and gets lost in a shooting battle like it did tonight, having two beasts on the glass can be a monumental asset.
It's difficult to put into words just how remarkable Butler's 2010-11 season has been, and the thought that Brad Stevens can actually win a championship after last year's near-miss is absolutely jaw-dropping. But with a continued domination of the glass, the unthinkable might not be too far off. How's THAT for a second chance opportunity?