Butler ready for Round 2 in national spotlight

Ronald Nored looks around Hinkle Fieldhouse and sees change.

The larger crowds are already more enthusiastic. Gordon Hayward,

Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes have been replaced by three

freshmen. Fans are clamoring to see the Bulldogs’ new NCAA banner

and, of course, a nation is ready to watch Butler’s encore.

College basketball had best beware: No. 17 Butler has even

bigger plans this season.

”I think we are a step ahead of where we were last year at this

time,” said Nored, the junior point guard. ”I think back then, we

were kind of going through the motions because we all knew what we

were doing. Now, I think we’ve had to focus a little more because

we have three freshmen to teach. So I think we’re a little

better.”

Better?

It’s hard to fathom this little school outdoing last season’s

crowning achievement.

But just seven months after coming within inches of bringing

home a national title, the team that won the hearts of a nation

with their relaxed attitude and team-first approach is chasing the

same goal they always do – winning it all.

The only difference this time is that people outside the locker

room think Butler can do it, too.

”I think you’re always talking about that, but ours was a long,

long process to get there,” coach Brad Stevens said. ”It wasn’t

just a five-game run in March. It was a long, long run of good

teams and players.”

That part hasn’t changed, though the Bulldogs (33-5 last year)

must plug bigger holes than usual.

Hayward, their do-everything swingman who caused so many matchup

problems, left for the NBA after just two seasons and landed with

Utah. He is the first Bulldogs player ever taken in the first

round, and had he returned, many expected Butler to open this

season ranked in the top five.

The bigger loss may be Veasley. The 6-foot-3 senior was the glue

of last year’s team, the guy who always seemed to be in the right

place at the right time whatever the Bulldogs needed.

But when Nored says this year’s team could be better, he means

it.

On paper, the Bulldogs are bigger, deeper and more athletic than

last spring when national media types started making all those

comparisons between Butler and the team in the movie ”Hoosiers.”

What most forget is that the real-life ”Hoosiers” team, Milan,

reached high school’s Final Four in 1953 before winning their

famous state title in 1954.

Or that these Bulldogs didn’t find their groove until January

last season.

In November 2009, Nored was still trying to recover from surgery

to put titanium rods in each of his shins, and Howard was routinely

getting into foul trouble. The combination led to four early-season

losses, knocking the Bulldogs out of the rankings. Butler followed

that with a school record 25-game winning streak that put them on

the brink of an implausible national title, and everyone forgot

those early scars.

Everyone except, the Bulldogs.

”There are some things that, maybe, we’re doing a little

better,” Howard said. ”We’ve got some guys who have been through

a lot in a year and there may be a few things that we’re a little

behind on, but those things come with time and repetition.”

And experience.

Nored, Howard and shooting guard Shelvin Mack again form the

nucleus of this year’s squad.

Butler expects 6-foot-10 sophomore Andrew Smith and 6-7 junior

Garrett Butcher, both highly touted prep players, to do the dirty

work inside. Butcher had offseason surgery on both knees and looks

more confident on the court this season, while Smith is still

trying to find his comfort level and avoid foul trouble.

Stevens plans to stick with a three-guard lineup that includes

senior Shawn Vanzant, a defensive stopper.

But he also has three impressive newcomers.

Khyle Marshall, a 6-7 freshman from Florida, turned heads with

his athleticism in the team’s two exhibition games. Indy native

Chrishawn Hopkins, a 6-1 guard, gives them another player in the

backcourt, and 6-9 freshman Erik Fromm from Bloomington, Ind.,

could spread things out with his 3-point shooting.

It’s enough to make the Bulldogs confident they can get back to

the Final Four.

”I wouldn’t say much has changed,” Nored said. ”We’re still

running a lot of the same sets out of different looks, and I think

the big emphasis has been getting Matt the ball inside and getting

Shelvin the ball on the perimeter. I just think guys have

heightened their level of play and we’ve got a lot of different

tools.”

Enough to possibly make the nation embrace them all over

again.