Butler’s unsung heroes have been the difference makers

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HOUSTON – Butler may be the team playing in the second consecutive national title game, but I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that the UConn Huskies are far and away the more talented basketball team.

And I don’t say that as a diss to Butler. Truly.

UConn has three guys in their starting lineup that will likely play in the NBA in Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, and Alex Oriakhi. They have kids getting minutes off of their bench that were top 50 or top 100 recruits coming out of high school. Butler? For as good as Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, and company are, they rely on much more than natural ability to survive.

Matt Howard is a relentless worker around the basket. He’s one of those guys whose engine is always running, who is always trying to get better position. He’s a blue collar glue guy that just so happens to be a 42.6% three point shooter with an excellent post game.

Shelvin Mack has what I would term as old man game. He’s not going to jump over or blow by you. But he’s strong with his dribble and understands how to use that strength to bully defenders. The best aspect of his game, however, is his jumper. He doesn’t need much space to get it off, he has range out to about 28 feet, and he seems to shoot better and better when there is more riding on the shot.

But what makes Butler so dangerous is that the rest of their guys, the players that should be intimidated by the moment and opponent, play like they are all-americans as well. The last two games, the most important run of the game has been sparked by unlikely sources.

Last weekend, with Butler down 51-40 to Florida midway through the second half, seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins — he had played just seven minutes in four games since mid-January — came in and had an assist and a three in the span of about 30 seconds. Those two plays changed the momentum of the game and allowed Butler to make a run that forced overtime.

Last night against VCU, the Rams had erased Butler’s six point halftime lead with an 11-2 run. But senior sharpshooter Zach Hahn — who had scored all nine points and made all of four field goals in four tournament games — buried back-to-back threes and then gave Butler the lead for good with a crafty, up-and-under layup. The efforts of Khyle Marshall, an athletic 6’7″ freshman forward, in the first half should not go unnoticed either. VCU was on fire early, and Marshall’s work on the offensive glass and in the paint early in the first half kept VCU at arm’s length.

Butler probably doesn’t make the Final Four without those two plays from Hopkins. They may not have made the title game without eight straight points from Zach Hahn or that early hustle from Marshall.

None of those three players would be labeled a hero after their performance. That moniker goes to Mack, who put Butler up seven late in the second half with 10 straight points, and Howard, who followed up a miss with an offensive rebound and putback with less than a minute left. The post game press conferences still featured the team’s stars. But Butler’s unsung heroes are who have gotten them to this point in the season.

That is part of the luxury of having made back-to-back national title games. The Bulldogs won’t be tight on Monday night. They’ve been here before. They came up two points short of a national title just one year ago. Butler will not be nervous. Their role players will not be blinded by the bright lights in Houston.

That’s a dangerous quality for a team like Butler to have.

So who steps up against UConn on Monday night?