The 2011 NCAA Tournament kicks into high gear Thursday afternoon as Southeast Regional play tips off in earnest at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. with the No. 8 seed Butler Bulldogs matching up against the ninth-seeded Old Dominion Monarchs.
Butler is back in the tournament after a stirring and memorable run to the championship game in 2010, famously falling inches short on Gordon Hayward's failed half-court heave at the buzzer against Duke. This season, the Bulldogs nabbed a league-record fifth consecutive regular-season Horizon League title, though had to share that honor in a three-way tie with Cleveland State and Milwaukee. Thus Butler was dealt the second seed for the conference tournament and prevailed for its second straight tourney crown and third in four years. It was fitting that the Bulldogs had to defeat both CSU (76-68) in the semifinals and then Milwaukee (59-44) in the final to assure themselves of a return trip to the NCAAs. Butler carries a 23-9 record into Thursday's matchup and faced four 2011 tournament teams during an aggressive non-conference slate, winning at Florida State while losing to Duke, Louisville and Xavier. Thanks to last year's run through the bracket, Butler holds a 13-10 all-time record in the tournament in this its fifth consecutive appearance on college basketball's biggest stage.
Old Dominion is also making a return trip to the Big Dance, coming off back- to-back Colonial League titles. The Monarchs went into this year's tournament as the No. 2 seed and rattled off three straight wins culminating in a 70-65 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in the final. The performance gave ODU a 27-6 ledger heading into Thursday's action, impressive given the strength of this year's CAA competition and a hefty non-conference schedule. The Monarchs played 11 games against this season's tourney competitors, splitting with fellow CAA clubs George Mason and VCU during the regular season and ripping off four straight victories against the likes of Saint Peter's, Clemson, Xavier and Richmond. ODU also opened the season with a narrow 62-59 loss to Georgetown and later lost to Missouri. The Monarchs made waves in the 2010 tournament as an 11-seed, pulling off a 51-50 win against sixth-seeded Notre Dame before dropping a 76-68 decision to Baylor. The loss brought ODU's record in the tournament to 3-9.
Thursday's matchup should be a familiar one for both sides, as the two previously tangled in an opening-round tournament game in 2007 -- a 57-46 Butler win. Their only other meeting also came in the postseason during the 1999 NIT tournament, which Butler also won. Both teams are riding nine-game win streaks entering tournament play.
The Monarchs are not a flashy offensive team by any means but get things done with a stout defensive effort. Senior Frank Hassell's 15.0 points and 9.6 rebounds lead the club in both categories while shooting a proficient 56.1 percent from the floor. He stands as the second-leading rebounder in the CAA and ranks third in field-goal percentage while serving as the catalyst for an ODU squad that leads the nation in rebounding margin (plus-12.2). Kent Bazemore chips in 12.5 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 5.0 boards while Ben Finney adds depth at 9.2 points and a solid 6.3 rebounds per contest. Bazemore also topped the conference with 75 steals, swiping 2.3 per game. Overall, the Monarchs average 65.8 points on 44.1 percent shooting, totals that stand seventh and fifth, respectively, in the CAA. The defense holds opponents to a mere 58.3 points and 40.4 percent shooting. ODU ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense, having held 20 opponents under 60 points this season.
While this year's team is not as deep as the 2009-10 squad, Butler does have returning standouts Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack leading the way. Howard leads the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game and rebounding with 7.8 per contest. The senior shoots a crisp 49.5 percent from the field and is second to Mack with 44 three-pointers on 44.4 percent shooting. Mack averages 15.2 ppg and dropped 64 threes at a 33.9-percent accuracy while adding 4.5 boards and a team-high 3.6 assists, also good for fifth in the Horizon League. Howard's point and rebounding totals stand fourth and third, respectively, in conference. Andrew Smith adds 8.9 ppg, 5.4 boards and leads the conference with a 63.2 shooting percentage. Overall, Butler averages 72.8 points per game and connects on 44.6 percent of its field goals, both totals standing third in the league. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the Horizon in free-throw percentage (73.0), second in three-point field-goal percentage (36.1) and third in rebounding margin (plus-3.4) with 34.9 per game. A strong defensive effort netted the Bulldogs a third-place finish in conference, allowing 64.7 ppg.
Butler may be a sexy pick here with its name-power coming off last season and a decent crop of returning players. However, 2011 is a different year and the Bulldogs need to start from square one against an Old Dominion team that possesses some of the tournament's best credentials with respect to defense and rebounding. Look for ODU to pull off the mild upset and advance into the third round in what should be an entertaining finish.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Old Dominion 66, Butler 64