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Like most new coaches, Smart would build his VCU team with pieces left behind by his predecessor. Part of that was good: Grant's Rams had gone 24--10 and reached the 2009 tournament. Part of that was problematic: These were Grant's players. "It took a while," says 5'10" senior point guard Joey Rodriguez about adjusting to Smart's style. "Probably the whole [first] year. It was a battle." (Rodriguez left VCU when Grant did, intending to transfer, but changed his mind.)
No player has been more vital than 6'9" senior forward Jamie Skeen, who made three three-pointers in the first half against the Jayhawks and finished with a game-high 26 points to go with 10 rebounds. Last season Skeen, who transferred from Wake Forest in December 2008, averaged just a tick over 20 minutes backing up Larry Sanders, who would be the 15th pick in the NBA draft. "He and I were at odds because he wanted to play a lot more than he played," says Smart. "When Larry moved on, Skeen was by far the biggest beneficiary. His work ethic was terrific."
Not just his work ethic but his toughman attitude as well. As Skeen sat at his locker postgame after the Kansas win, his celebration was muted. "We still got two games left," he said. "I'm not satisfied."
The Rams have traveled far from the night of March 13, when they declined to watch the NCAA selection show as a team because their poor finish had left them expecting nothing. Just 14 days later Smart pulled his Blackberry from its leather holster and saw that there were 200 texts awaiting him. The device had a background image of the team celebrating its win over Purdue in Chicago. "So," says Smart, the man of the moment. "I may need a new picture."
If Smart knows about putting pieces together, senior forward Matt Howard understands even better what can happen when they're assembled. On a very cold, windy afternoon in February he barged through the doors of Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler campus and pulled a threadbare winter hat off his head. He was there to talk about last year, when Butler's marvelous run to a national championship ended two points short against Duke. And while he remembered the crushing pain that comes with such a near victory, he also remembered sitting in a locker room at Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium after the loss and listening as seniors Avery Jukes, Nick Rodgers and Willie Veasley addressed the team, per Bulldogs tradition. "They talked about how great it was to win all those games," said Howard. "And the best part was coming together as a team."
Those three seniors had finished their eligibility and departed, along with Hayward, a sophomore forward who was the ninth pick in the NBA draft. It was an enormous departure that could have returned the program to mediocrity. But under Brad Stevens—at 34, remarkably just the second-youngest coach in this year's Final Four and, like Smart, a Division III player, from DePauw University—Butler has again come together. Last Saturday the Bulldogs rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half to beat No. 2 seed Florida 74--71 in overtime. The Bulldogs haven't lost since Feb. 3, a 13-game streak that includes last-second tournament wins over Old Dominion and Pittsburgh and a 61--54 victory over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
The restart centers on Howard, the unorthodox, 6'8" 230-pounder whom junior guard Ronald Nored calls "Mr. Everything," for his varied skills, high motor and leadership. The eighth of 10 children, Howard was an all-state player at Connersville (Ind.) High. He shifted inside to the five spot to make room for Hayward but this year landed back on the perimeter while Stevens reshuffled the rotation and installed Andrew Smith, a 6'11" sophomore, at center.
In his new role Howard has flourished—and not just by hitting the game-winning shot against ODU and the decisive free throw against Pitt. He has also averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds while connecting on 42.6% of his 122 three-point tries. A year ago he averaged 11.6 and 5.2 rebounds and, most telling, attempted only 11 threes all year. Yet his fundamental energy remains intact. "Every time I run over to a pile, I'm helping him up," says Smith. As a junior, Howard wore a mouth guard for the games he guessed would be most violent; now he wears it all the time.
Stevens has surrounded Howard and Smith with familiar faces and new ones. Familiar: junior guard Shelvin Mack, a stocky, streaky combo guard who erupted for 30 points against Pitt and 27 against Florida. Also familiar: Nored, a tireless on-ball defender who will take on Rodriguez in the semifinals, and senior guard Shawn Vanzant, who has nearly doubled the 14.6 minutes per game he played as a junior. New: Khyle Marshall, a 6'7" freshman forward who came off the bench with a vital 10 points and seven rebounds (all offensive) against the Gators.
For all of them, another Final Four is a rare second chance. "We expect to go back," said Nored in February, before the Bulldogs had earned a place in the tournament. "That's the tradition at Butler."