The match will feature two teams that won their regular season conference titles, but failed to win their conference tournaments.
LSU (26-7) won the Southeastern Conference regular season title with a 13-3 league mark, but was eliminated in the semifinals of the league tournament. Butler (26-5) won the Horizon League regular season title, but dropped the conference tournament championship, 57-54, to Cleveland State.
Both teams have had their share of problems of late as 20th-ranked LSU has dropped three of its last four contests after winning 13 of its last 14 games with the only loss at the hands of Xavier.
Butler has dropped three of its last seven games, but won 10 in a row to start the season. After suffering its first loss of the year at Ohio State on Dec. 13, the Bulldogs reeled off an 11 game win streak before falling to Green Bay on Feb. 2. Since then, Butler has gone 7-3 and is ranked No. 23 in the country.
LSU players have suggested that they got a little complacent after clinching the regular season SEC title and that was a reason that they faltered down the stretch. But the fact that they shot less than 40 percent in each of their last four games after hitting 46 percent in the previous 29 may have been a bigger factor.
“In the game of basketball you know everything's not going to go the way you plan every game because if so everybody would be the best,” said the SEC’s player of the year Marcus Thornton. “So, like I said, we've got to snap out of it a little bit. Get some shots, get a good feel for the area and the arena, and try to come out Thursday and make something happen.”
Thornton, who leads the Tigers in scoring at 20.7 points a game, has had a tough time knocking down baskets during the rocky four-game stretch. The senior from Baton Rouge has hit only 28 of 73 shots from the floor and has connected on just 6 of 27 from 3-point land.
When you do the math, Thornton has hit 38 percent from the field and 22 percent of his threes in his last four outings. That is well below the 48 and 40 percent he had knocked down from the field and on threes, respectively, prior to the last four games.
Thornton and the rest of the Tigers’ shooting woes cannot be taken out of the equation. However, LSU head coach Trent Johnson says the key now is for his players to relax and keep everything in perspective.
“We've lost three out of four games to people who have been better on a given afternoon, better on that day,” Johnson said. “Our margin of error has always been slim. When we won seven games in a row, the ball was going down for us.
“So, again, it's my responsibility to get them just to relax and understand that, hey, look, nothing's wrong,” added Johnson. “Yeah, we've lost three out of four, but it's not because of what we haven't been doing, other than the fact that the ball hasn't been going down. We've defended pretty well, rebounded pretty well. Everybody you're playing at this time of the year is good. And so that happens.”
Standing in LSU's way of advancing to a potential matchup with No. 1 seed North Carolina on Saturday is a Butler squad that starts a pair of freshmen and sophomores along with one junior.
Butler has posted 20 wins or more in 11 of the last 13 years and enters this contest ranked seventh in the NCAA in scoring defense (57.4) and sixth in field goal percentage defense (38.1).
The Bulldogs are excited about the opportunity that they have, but know that getting by LSU is easier said than done.
“When you combine that (great coaching) with exceptional athleticism and basketball ability, you’ve got a good team and ultimately an SEC champion,” said Butler head coach Brad Stevens. “So they are a really impressive ball team. Obviously, with (Marcus) Thornton being the SEC Player of the Year and (Tasmin) Mitchell being first-team All-SEC and these guys have so much experience...We’re going to have to play very well to compete.”
LSU has struggled this season when the opposing team has a big man that can pound the ball in the low post. While Butler doesn’t have a dominating inside presence it has one player that can get inside and create problems in Matt Howard, and another that can cause some matchup problems with his length in Gordon Hayward.
Howard leads the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding at 14.6 and 6.7 a game, respectively. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Howard is the Horizon League’s Player of the Year and he is the epitome of how this Butler squad plays every time it takes the court.
“Well, he plays no harder and with no more energy than anybody that steps on the floor for Butler,” Johnson said. “And that's what you respect. Those kids are always ready to play. And they know how to play. You know, I have a group just very similar in that regard.”
LSU will also have to be aware of Hayward, who was the Horizon League’s second best 3-point shooter knocking down 44.5 percent of his threes. Drawing the assignment of defending Hayward will be LSU's shutdown defender, Garrett Temple, who has often drawn the task of manning up on the opponent’s top scorer.
“He's a very tall freshman that can shoot the ball, about 6-7 or 6-8, but also has a lot of basketball skill in that he can dribble the ball, pass the ball,” Temple said. “So, I mean, he's a very mature freshman. It's going to be tough because of his length and not because of the offense they run.
“But I've had to guard, you know, great players a long time. So, you know, with my teammates here playing great team defense is going to be the biggest thing. That is the biggest thing about guarding a guy that can score the ball is team defense.”
Many expected Butler would be an NIT team at best this season with the influx of youth that Stevens has. The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League after losing four starters from last year’s squad that set a school and league record with 30 wins, and posted a first round win in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year.
The Bulldogs exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations and now some are wondering if the young players may have a tough time in dealing with being in the spotlight on Thursday. But LSU's headman isn’t one of them.
“Experience doesn't mean a thing at this time of the year,” Johnson said. “It's about your ability to play, and concentrate and do the things you've been doing all year long.”
LSU fans are not very familiar with the Bulldogs and many are looking for some teams to compare them to. The only common opponent that LSU and Butler has is Xavier and the Tigers lost on their home court to the Muskateers, while Butler went to Xavier’s home court and walked away with a 74-65 victory.
Another team that fans can point to for a possible comparison is Washington State, who LSU defeated 64-52.
“This was a team that was to me very similar to the likes of a Washington State,” Johnson said. “But probably a better basketball team than Washington State is with no question in terms of how they approach the game.”
Just like Butler wasn’t expected to be dancing in March, neither was LSU. But now that both teams have proved the prognosticators wrong it should be a good matchup on Thursday and that’s what LSU is expecting.
“I can honestly sit up here and tell you going into every game this year, this group that I've been fortunate enough to coach this year has always been ready to play,” Johnson said. “They competed from start to finish. And if there's a loose ball we'd be the first ones on our way to get it. So this will be a game that if both teams play to their capability, it should be a very, very good basketball game.”
LSU (26-7) vs. Butler (26-5)
March 19, 2008, 11:20 a.m. CST
Greensboro Coliseum – Greensboro, N.C.
G – 5 Marcus Thornton (6-4, 205, Sr.) 20.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg
G – 14 Garrett Temple (6-6, 190, Sr.) 7.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.8 apg
G – 11 Bo Spencer (6-1, 185, So.) 11.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.6 apg
F – 1 Tasmin Mitchell (6-7, 235, Jr.) 16.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg
F – 21 Chris Johnson (6-11, 210, Sr.) 7.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg
G – 13 Terry Martin (6-6, 210, Sr.) 4.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg
G – 4 Chris Bass (6-0, 180, Fr.) 0.9 ppg, 1.6 apg
F – 32 Quintin Thornton (6-9, 240, Sr.) 2.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg
F – 24 Storm Warren (6-7, 220, Fr.) 2.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg
F – 2 Delwan Graham (6-5, 215, Fr.) 1.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg
F – 54 Matt Howard (6-8, 230, So.) 14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg
F – 20 Gordon Hayward (6-8, 200, Fr.) 13.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg
G – 1 Shelvin Mack (6-3, 214, Fr.) 11.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg
G – 21 Willie Veasley (6-3, 204, Jr.) 8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg
G – 5 Ronald Nored (6-0, 178, Fr.) 4.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
G – 3 Zach Hahn (6-0, 177, So.) 5.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg
G – 2 Shawn Vanzant (6-1, 171, So.) 3.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg
F – 24 Avery Jukes (6-8, 217, Jr.) 3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg
F – 32 Garrett Butcher (6-7, 206, Fr.) 2.6 ppg, 1.5 rpg