This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Butler-VCU: Call them underdogs, but they're also talented teams

Posted by: Amelia Rayno Updated: April 1, 2011 - 5:52 PM

I've read stories and watched TV clips about Shaka Smart's motivational tactics.

Throughout the entire NCAA tournament, he's found new ways to inspire VCU. Make his players think they're better than they really are. Trick his guys into believing that they're part of the top program in America.

I've read stores and watched TV clips about Butler's heart. The Bulldogs' will to win. Their David psyche. Call them the Butler Underdogs, right? 

Heart, however, didn't deliver the two teams to Houston for Saturday's Final Four. Talent did.

It's now clear that Butler, a team I watched live in last year's Final Four and this season's Southeast regional, has been a top-five program for the last two seasons. VCU's run has been shocking, but the Rams also deserve praise for their skills, too.

Yes, it's impressive that two teams have managed to overcome the odds and reach the peak of college basketball. Out of nearly 6 million brackets submitted on ESPN.com, two people picked every Final Four participant. We didn't believe in VCU or Butler.

Their regular season struggles didn't give us a reason to assume anything about their March Madness potential. VCU lost five of eight games in February. The Bulldogs lost four of five in the Horizon League during one rough stretch.

But since the start of March Madness, both teams have outplayed squads that they weren't expected to challenge. Their feat is surprising based on their seed. But their talent, chemistry and mental fortitude rival some of the best in the country.

I don't care what any NBA GM and prognosticator thinks about him. Shelvin Mack is one of the top guards in the country. And he's capable of competing at the next level.

He dropped 30 points during an upset over top-seeded Pitt. He struggled against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. But after Jordan Taylor, a second-team Associated Press All-America, nailed a crucial three-pointer in the final minutes, Mack casually dribbled to other end of the floor and killed Wisconsin's dreams of a comeback with a sweet jump shot.

Mack was a three-star player in high school, according to Rivals.com. He had offers from Akron, Marshall, Bradley, Evansville and Butler. Gators guard Kenny Boynton was a five-star recruit who turned down scholarships from Duke and Texas to attend Florida. When Butler and Florida met in the Elite Eight, however, Mack was clearly the best player on the floor.

Mack's teammate, Matt Howard, has been the toughest post player in the entire field. And until last weekend, he was the most underrated player in the NCAA tournament.

That duo is one of the best in the country.

The two players lead a Bulldogs squad that has adjusted to a variety of styles. Wisconsin's swing offense. Pitt's athleticism and physicality. Florida's speed and versatility.

Their head coach doesn't look the part, but he certainly plays it well. Brad Stevens said Billy Donovan "outcoached me to death" after his team's win over the Gators in New Orleans. His humility is understandable.

But down the stretch, he had the better strategy. He pressured a pair of struggling shooters (Erving Walker and Boynton went 2-for-10 from beyond the arc) throughout the game. It worked. With Boynton and Walker missing shots from outside, Florida's offense couldn't adjust in overtime.

Butler is in Houston because it belongs there with the rest of the country's best.

VCU showed promise during a nonconference win over UCLA. But the Rams only mustered a fourth-place finish in the CAA.

But they led the league in assists, turnover margin, steals and three-point field goals per game.The Rams made 48 percent of their three-point attempts against Kansas in the Elite Eight. They had 18 assists compared to Florida State's seven in their victory over the Seminoles in the Sweet Sixteen. They committed four turnovers in a 22-point victory over Purdue in the third round. In their 18-point victory over Georgetown in the second round, the Rams recorded seven steals. And in their First Four victory over USC, they finished with 11 assists and nine turnovers.

Forward Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen have played their way into the NBA conversation. They equaled or topped the performances of multiple players projected to warrant first-round selections this summer, including Kansas' Morris brothers and forward Thomas Robinson, Purdue's JaJuan Johnson and Florida State's Chris Singleton.

Joey Rodriguez is the best glue guy in the tournament. He's the engine behind VCU's crafty offense. They're a confusing bunch. They're balanced. They can run or they can slow it down and beat teams in the halfcourt set, too.

They're just good. That's why they're in Houston.

As Bill Self said after his squad lost to the Rams, "If we played shirts and skins today, you wouldn't have much of a difference on players or how they look."

I think heart is a factor. But every team has it in March. You think VCU wanted it more than its opponents? I doubt it. They're all giving 100 percent in their pursuit of a national title.

Only the best, however, survive.

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