(The Sports Network)
The Southeast Region's top seed Pittsburgh puts its national championship hopes back on the line Saturday as the eighth-seeded Butler Bulldogs take the court at the Verizon Center fresh off a thrilling last- second win in the second round.
Pitt took care of business Thursday and played like a No. 1 seed in using a strong-second half to put away 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville, 74-51, in its opener. Ashton Gibbs led the way with 26 points, Nasir Robinson netted 12 points and Gilbert Brown ended with nine points and nine rebounds. The Panthers captured the Big East regular-season championship and earned a top seed for the second time in three years making their 10th consecutive appearance at the Big Dance, tops amongst Big East schools. This is their 23rd overall appearance at this event, having won a remarkable six Big East crowns in the last 10 years. Pitt has a pretty healthy history of late in the tournament, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in five of the last nine seasons and carrying a 23-23 overall record into the weekend. The Panthers were on a bit of shaky ground entering the tournament with three losses in six games after losing to UConn in their Big East tourney opener.
Butler got by Old Dominion Thursday with a buzzer-beating putback from Matt Howard to finish off a wild back-and-forth 60-58 win for the Bulldogs. Kent Bazemore's two free throws with 32 seconds remaining pulled ODU even at 58-58, but the Bulldogs got a final chance with time winding down. Shawn Vanzant held the ball until the clock ticked down to single digits before making his move. As Vanzant drove toward the basket, the ball was knocked away before Andrew Smith tipped it off the glass. Howard grabbed the ball at the left side of the basket and converted the layup just prior to the final buzzer. The play was briefly reviewed, but upheld after replays showed the senior forward released the ball in time. Howard finished with 15 points and five rebounds, while Shelvin Mack went for 15 points and five assists for Butler, which stretched its win streak to 10 games. Smith had 11 points and six boards for the victors. 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. Thanks to last year's run through the bracket, the Bulldogs hold a 14-10 all-time record in the tournament in this its fifth consecutive appearance on college basketball's biggest stage.
These two programs will be meeting for the first time in 65 years. Their last matchup came back on December 10, 1946, a 41-39 Butler victory in Indianapolis. Butler owns a 7-5 mark in the series, with the two schools having played on a semi-annual basis from 1928-46. All 12 games were staged in Indianapolis.
Butler's win over ODU was keyed by returning standouts Howard and Mack. Howard leads the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game and rebounding with 7.8 per contest. The senior shoots a crisp 49.9 percent from the field and is second to Mack with 45 three-pointers on 43.7 percent shooting. Mack averages 15.2 ppg and has dropped 67 threes at a 33.7-percent accuracy while adding 4.5 boards and a team-high 3.8 assists, also good for fourth in the Horizon League. Howard's point and rebounding totals stand fourth and third, respectively, in conference. Andrew Smith adds 8.0 ppg, 5.5 boards and leads the conference with a 65.5 shooting percentage. Overall, Butler averages 72.4 points per game and connects on 44.5 percent of its field goals, standing third and fourth in the league, respectively. The Bulldogs are tied for fourth in the Horizon in free-throw percentage (72.4), third in three-point field-goal percentage (37.8) and second in rebounding margin (plus-3.9) with 34.1 per game. A strong defensive effort nets the Bulldogs a second-place ranking in conference, allowing 65.8 ppg.
The Panthers' regular-season success in the Big East, regarded as the nation's best conference, speaks volumes of the potential that Pitt holds for a possible run at the national championship. Pittsburgh outclassed all league foes in scoring margin (plus-13.4), ranking seventh in the nation. A big part of that is the Panthers' stiff defense, limiting opponents to just 60.7 ppg, sliding into 18th place nationally and second to Cincinnati in conference. The offense does more than hold its own against such competition, averaging 74.1 ppg to rank fifth in the league. Pitt also has the second-ranked field-goal percentage in conference (47.3), three-point field-goal percentage (39.1) while tying for first in assists with 17.4 per game. As for rebounding, Pitt plays second fiddle to only Old Dominion in placing second in the country in rebounding margin at plus-10.8 as the Panthers wrangle 40.2 caroms per contest. One notable deficiency in Pittsburgh's game is free-throw shooting, standing 12th in the Big East at 67.1 percent. Leading the way for Pitt is the junior Gibbs, who puts up 17.0 points per game to place sixth in conference. He adds 2.7 assists, 2.3 boards and leads the Big East with 101 three-pointers on a conference-best 48.8 percent shooting. Senior Brad Wanamaker kicks in 11.8 ppg, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, good for fifth in the league. Brown is another solid all-around contributor, averaging 10.9 ppg, 4.4 boards and 2.7 assists. Robinson and Gary McGhee help take care of things in the paint, with the former posting 9.1 ppg and 5.0 rpg and the latter 6.9 ppg and a team-high 7.7 rpg. McGhee's rebounding total stands fourth in the Big East while Robinson's 53.7 shooting percentage is the league's second-best. As if the Panthers didn't have enough depth, Travon Woodall checks in with 6.4 points and 3.4 assists per game.
Pitt will certainly have its hands full with a scrappy Butler team but ultimately the Panthers' superior talent will win out.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Pittsburgh 70, Butler 67