Continued from page 1

But they came within 2 points of the championship last year thanks to downright nasty defense. Butler shut down K-State’s Jacob Pullen in the regional final, hounding him into 4-of-13 shooting and four turnovers. It harassed Michigan State into 16 turnovers in the Final Four and allowed zero _ zip, zilch, nada _ fast-break points.

And when the Bulldogs’ season was on the verge of slipping away this year with three straight losses and four in five games, it was defense, not offense, that turned things around.

“We really focused on the defensive end of the floor,” Howard said. “We weren’t guarding the way we normally had, and I think that was really important for us to get back to that.”

Butler now has won 13 straight, best of any of the Final Four teams. It is giving up a measly 59.6 points on average during the stretch, almost eight points better than its average through the first 23 games of the season. Only two teams have managed to get 70 or more off Butler during the streak, both in the NCAA tournament.

The Bulldogs also outrebounded Old Dominion, the nation’s best team on the glass, 32-29 in the second round.

“Butler is probably the toughest defensive team we’ll face all year,” Burgess said.

That’s saying something, considering VCU played Florida State, which leads the country in field goal defense, in the Southwest Regional semifinal.

“Butler is much more sound. They’re not going to make any type of defensive mistakes,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We have to get into the paint and not always to shoot the ball. We’ve got to touch the paint to pass. We have to make the extra pass on the perimeter. We have to use shot fakes. You have to finish with strength.

“One thing that great defensive teams all have in common is they’re extremely physical, they’re aggressive. If you don’t take the fight to them, then you’re going to be in for a long night.”

First one to 60 gets to play for the title.