- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. — Practice was over by the time floodgates opened for Virginia in the Midwest Region.

The top-seeded Cavaliers spent Friday morning talking about No. 9 seed Butler, Saturday night’s opponent in in Raleigh. All anyone watching college basketball was talking about by late Friday afternoon was how Michigan State became the eighth No. 2 seed in tournament history to lose to a No. 15 seed.

Middle Tennessee State jettisoned the Spartans, 90-81, in the biggest upset of the tournament — and perhaps in tournament history.

The Blue Raiders’ win eliminated what had become an annual nightmare for Virginia. In back-to-back NCAA tournaments, it was eliminated by Michigan State. The legacy of torment is so long, it stretches 25 years. Virginia coach Tony Bennett lost to Michigan State as a player in 1991 when the Spartans’ Steve Smith made an 18-foot buzzer-beater to beat Green Bay, which Bennett played for and was coached by his father, Dick.

With the region blown open by Michigan State’s loss, Virginia’s possible path to the Final Four widened — if it can avoid a large upset. After playing Butler, the seeds for possible opponents on the way to Houston are as follows: 12, 4, 11, 3, 10, 15.

No. 4 seed Iowa State plays No. 12 seed Little Rock. The winner will face the Virginia-Butler survivor. At the bottom half of the region, No. 11 seed Gonzaga plays No. 3 seed Utah. The No. 10 seed, Syracuse, which many argued should not have been included in the tournament, plays No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State next.

Well before their region was gashed by upsets, Virginia players were preparing for Saturday in whatever low-key apparel they wore to breakfast. In a convention center’s unused open area, the Cavaliers staged a walkthrough, mimicking Butler’s plays. Point guard London Perrantes worked through his responsibilities in flip-flops, shorts and a T-shirt.

“No socks,” he was sure to point out.

Most teams arrive at the tournament with a three-team pre-scout of their pod at the ready. For Virginia, the focus was on Hampton before swinging to Butler. An upshot for the Cavaliers in the restrained window available to scout the second opponent at a location is that they knew it would be Butler before their own game began. So, Virginia was able to have its archival scout ready, then bolstered by fresh tape from the Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament opener.

That film showed Virginia a Butler team reliant on 3-pointers and steadiness. The Bulldogs shoot 30.5 percent of their shots from behind the 3-point line. It averages 10 turnovers a game.

The Bulldogs also have guard size comparable to Virginia. Redshirt senior Roosevelt Jones is ground bound, but bowls around at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds with an odd-angled game. Jones shoots quirky shots to score 14 points a game. He also uses his frame to bruise back at opposing guards. He said Friday he will guard ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon when the teams tipoff at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday.

Kellen Dunham is Butler’s 6-foot-6 shooting guard and leading scorer. He shot 49.5 percent from behind the 3-point line during Big East play. He’s handled every junk defense a basketball coach can conjure.

“I think 22 years on this earth I’ve seen it all being a shooter,” Dunham said. “So, face guard, box and one, triangle and two, being extremely physical, something like that, but, you know, the way to counter is not to force anything.”

Early Friday morning, the specters in the head of Butler coach Chris Holtmann woke him. He was thinking about Brogdon and Anthony Gill and Virginia’s pedigree. So, he pulled his laptop over and began to watch film of Virginia’s games in the ACC tournament.

“My wife looked over and said, ‘What time is it?’” Holtmann said. “‘2:30.’”

He did not sleep much, fueled by the adrenaline of the tournament and fear of improper preparation.

And, maybe the bracket was sliced open for the Bulldogs on Friday. They have run through it before. Back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2011 made the school known to more than just “Hoosiers” enthusiasts. But, more influential on this group was a recent season of downtrodden basketball and double off-court tragedies during this one.

First, the basketball. In 2013, Butler was 14-17 after its first year in the Big East. The move from the Atlantic 10 was labeled a leap at the time. That first season showed how much of one.

“I think because that has been so recent in our memory, you have an appreciation for how quickly things can turn the other way,” Holtmann said.

This season, former Bulldogs player Andrew Smith died from cancer on Jan. 16. He was 25 years old. The infant son of Emerson Kampen, who played with Smith and is the team’s “basketball analyst,” died Feb. 1 of Leigh’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that affects the central nervous system.

“I can remember going back into our offices when we were going through — when Andrew Smith was maybe weeks away from passing away, and then also dealing with the young man on our staff whose young son, infant son, had a terminal illness, and I remember our staff saying to each other, and we had a game coming up, ‘Wow. We don’t even want to think about the game right now,’” Holtmann said.

They pushed through, then made it back to the tournament, returning to tussle with the heavyweights.

Whomever wins Saturday night will return home then travel to Chicago next week for the Sweet 16. Coming along will be up to three double-digit seeds. Finally absent Virginia’s path is Michigan State. The road is suddenly open.

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