Picking Splinters: Defining Greatness

Once upon a time you could make a case that it was talent that was essential to a national championship. In fact you may have been able to do so as recently as 2007 (Florida) and 2009 (North Carolina), when the national champions pushed a plethora of picks in the first round of the NBA draft. But glance around the college hoops world this season and how many future NBA studs do you see? I’ll give you five of them: Derrick Williams, Harrison Barnes, Kyrie Irving, Jared Sullinger and Kemba Walker. If you want to throw Jimmer Fredette into that mix, feel free, but I don’t know if I’m quite sold. And there are similar doubts about Sullinger and Walker (undersized) at the next level.

You’ve probably heard 1,000 times that there are no great teams this season. I believe that to be half true.

If your definition of a great team is a squad that is stacked with NBA talent, then no, there are no great teams — not even Kentucky with its flock of impressive freshmen. But if your definition of a great team is a roster that does what it takes to win games, then there are absolutely great teams out there. And two of them are in the Final Four: Butler and Virginia Commonwealth.

Now here’s the catch: Back at the start of February, neither of these teams was very good. Forget “great,” VCU endured a loss to a 20-loss Northeastern squad, while Butler capped a three-game skid by dropping a game against 9-21 Youngstown State. Final Four here we come, right?

But both of these teams continued to adapt their play, continued to work and continued to improve. And they enter the final week of the NCAA basketball season as very different squads from the ones that began the season.

If you are at all a fan of the Rams you’ll know by know that they entered the tournament with, by far, the worst defensive statistics for an at-large team. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi (in)famously provided some motivation for the team when he jokingly claimed VCU couldn’t defend him. Well something seems to have changed, eh?

During their run to the Final Four, the Rams knocked off Purdue (No. 19 in adjusted offense per Ken Pomeroy) and Kansas (No. 6 in adjusted offense). Seems like someone ratcheted up their defensive intensity a little. Their press gave Kansas fits, but they’ve baffled other top offensive teams in different ways. Against the Jayhawks, the Rams forced Kansas to keep chucking 3-pointers (which they missed) and turn away from future NBA draft picks Marcus and Markieff Morris inside. Against the Hoyas in the second round, they shutdown the perimeter. Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright — all of whom shot better than 33 percent respectively from behind the arc this season — combined to miss all 16 of their attempted 3s.

The defensive story is similar with Butler. In the beginning of the season – and last year– Matt Howard was a foul machine. But over the course of the season he’s learned to challenge shots without getting the whistle. For the year he’s reduced his foul rate to 3.8 per 40 minutes, down from 5.5 last season. Keeping their best interior player on the floor at the end of games has probably helped the Bulldogs methinks, especially considering he hit the game winning buckets vs. Old Dominion and Pittsburgh. Moreover, Howard stifled the pick and pop game of the Wisconsin Badgers who desperately searched for clean 3-point attempts from face-up big man Jon Leuer. Leuer finished with just one made field goal in the game in 12 attempts.

There’s something to be said for the tremendous coaching jobs done by VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens. And I’m starting to think that the CAA schools may offer undergraduate courses in how to play with a chip on your shoulder. (Remember Jim Larranaga’s invocation of the Colonial Assassins Association in 2006?) But the main credit for the runs of these teams goes to the players. Clearly they have bought into their coach’s instructions. Obviously they are giving all the effort they have to give. And most assuredly the combination of effort and execution is making up for a talent gap against their opponents.

It may be a different take on the term, but to me, what Butler and VCU have done is the very definition of greatness.