Posted March 21, 2012 on AP on Fox
Butler's Andrew Smith and Ronald Nored spent part of Tuesday viewing footage from last year's NCAA tournament game against Pittsburgh. They still can't believe what they saw. The foul at midcourt, the missed free throw, the inexplicable foul on Matt Howard and finally Howard's free throw to win it. The final 1.4 seconds of that game will go down as one of the craziest finishes in tourney history. Now, 367 days later, Butler and Pittsburgh have a chance to do it all over again Wednesday night in the College Basketball Invitational tournament semifinals. ''I guess it took about 20 minutes to figure out what was going on because I really didn't know,'' Bulldogs center Andrew Smith said after looking again at the tape. Sorting it all out is confusing, even now, given how much has changed since that memorable first meeting. Instead of playing for a spot in the NCAA's regional semifinals, the Bulldogs and Panthers are now vying to play in next week's best-of-three championship series. The winner will face either Washington State or Oregon State on Monday night. Neither the Panthers nor the Bulldogs lived up to this season's lofty expectations. Pittsburgh's season was derailed by a series of debilitating injuries. Coach Jamie Dixon said he didn't even get to practice with a full roster until last week. Butler (22-14), meanwhile, lost three starters and five seniors from a team that reached the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011. Not surprisingly, the young Bulldogs struggled early and improved as the year continued before getting eliminated by Horizon League regular-season champion Valparaiso in the tournament semifinals. The old names are gone, too. Shelvin Mack, who set off the bizarre finishing sequence by fouling Gilbert Brown near midcourt, left school early for the NBA. Brown, who missed the free throw to give the Panthers the lead, was last seen in the NBA's Developmental League. Howard, who grabbed the rebound off the free throw, drew the foul while heaving the ball toward the basket from 85 feet away and then made the winning free throw with 0.8 seconds left, is playing in Europe. So it won't be the same. ''They've lost some guys, like Matt Howard, who I thought was one of the most valuable players in college basketball,'' Dixon said. ''I thought he did more for his team than most guys do for their teams.'' Stylistically, though, they're the same. Pittsburgh (19-16) comes in with four wins in six games, continuing to beat up on opponents with that big, bruising style that has served them well in the Big East. And the Bulldogs just happen to be playing their best basketball of the season in March again. They're 10-3 since Feb. 2 with two of those losses coming to Valpo and the third to Horizon League tourney champ Detroit. So for the third consecutive year, they're back in a final four - just not that Final Four. ''I think this one is a little different,'' Nored said with a laugh. ''But it's a great opportunity to continue to play and it's really good competition.'' Also back for the rematch is Nasir Robinson, Pittsburgh's No. 3 scorer (10.9 points) and top rebounder (6.8), though he is best remembered as the player who fouled Howard at the end of last year's game. It's a topic nobody from Pittsburgh likes to discuss. ''Obviously, you remember the NCAA tournament games and the ones you remember the most are the ones you don't win,'' Dixon said. But it's not going to be easy at Hinkle. The Bulldogs still have Nored, Smith, Khyle Marshall and Chrishawn Hopkins, all of whom played key roles in last year's tourney run. They'll have the home-court advantage, and, they already know the blueprint for beating Pittsburgh - getting tough. They just hope it doesn't take another crazy finish to advance. ''That's something we never expected, and it will be pretty cool,'' Nored said of the rematch. ''What will it take? To make tough plays and smart plays down the stretch.''
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