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Butler finds help from 2 surprising freshmen

Khyle Marshall spent most of the season trying to crack Butler's experienced lineup.

Crishawn Hopkins settled for playing everybody else's best point guard.

When the two finally got a chance to show what they could in last week's regional final, well, they delivered in typical Butler fashion — making all those critical plays to help send the Bulldogs get to a second straight Final Four.

"I think Khyle's been big all through the tournament. He does things that don't show up, like tips and hustle plays," senior Matt Howard said. "They really are coming along because we've put them in positions where they can be successful."

Even though they've taken different paths to get here.

Marshall, a muscular 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward from Florida, made an immediate impact because of his size and athleticism. He averaged 5.9 points in 15.2 minutes this season, with a steadily increasing role as the top backup for the foul-prone Howard or 6-11 sophomore center Andrew Smith.

Hopkins, last season's player of the year in Indianapolis, has barely averaged 6 minutes and played in only 20 of 36 games.

The reason for the big disparity between the highly-touted newcomers: Butler has a plethora of guards and long-range shooters already in its rotation, but always wants another big body.

Coach Brad Stevens, admittedly a numbers fanatic, doesn't think their stats are reflective of what they've done.

"He (Hopkins) plays the same spot as Ronald (Nored) so we had to decide whether to play him every other possession in practice or whether to let him run the other team's stuff," Stevens said Monday. "Last week, he was Erving Walker and Jordan Taylor. Two weeks before that, he was Norris Cole and he was just unbelievable. We couldn't guard him (Hopkins)."

Walker and Taylor are the point guards for Florida and Wisconsin. Cole is the point guard for Horizon League rival Cleveland State.

And all three would acknowledge it's not easy beating this defense — especially now.

Only two of Butler's last 14 opponents have reached 70 points — Florida and Pittsburgh — and in the tournament, opponents are shooting just 41.2 percent from the field.

But the young duo is following the same roadmap Smith and others have taken at Butler.

Marshall's hard work and Hopkins' quick flurry against Florida helped the Bulldogs rally from an 11-point second-half deficit to upset the second-seeded Gators 74-71.

Marshall finished with 10 points and seven offensive rebounds, none bigger than his momentum-changing putback in overtime. The freshman not only made the basket but also completed a three-point play to give Butler a 65-62 lead against the homestate team that never bothered to recruit him.

It doesn't get better than that.

"I kind of took that game personally because I was one of the guys downstate that they didn't even look at," Marshall said, referring to the Gators.

The bigger shock was seeing Hopkins on the floor.

He hadn't even appeared in the Bulldogs' first three tourney games and hadn't played more than a minute in any game since Feb. 19. But Hopkins immediately delivered a nifty no-look pass to Howard for one basket, then knocked down a 3-pointer to start the run that tied the score at 57 with 3:03 left in regulation.

What was Stevens thinking?

"We were down by nine, and we had nothing positive going, really," the coach said. "What we needed to do against that zone was to beat it off the dribble, and he's one of three guys on our team that does that best."

The kid who grew up in Las Vegas made Stevens' gamble pay off.

"Shawn (Vanzant) is always in my ear, especially during games, about being confident and ready," Hopkins said. "So it was really exciting. I was just ready to get in and show what I could do."

This is the traditional Butler Way.

Normally, it takes about a year for players to get comfortable with Butler's offensive and defensive systems. Even Smith, at 6-11, was limited to 118 minutes in 38 games last season.

"I felt like even at the end of my freshman year, I didn't really understand the whole entire system because it relies so much on trust," Smith said. "When you don't play a whole lot, it takes a little longer to get that down."

But now, like Smith, Hopkins and Marshall are breaking out on a national stage.

There's just one thing missing from this remarkable season — winning a national championship.

"I was in Indy for the games last year, so I saw them live and I remember thinking I wish I had been born a year earlier so I could have been part of it," Marshall said. "Now, we're living in those same shoes and I couldn't be happier."