PITTSBURGH (AP) The list of season-long goals in the Butler locker room doesn’t look much different than the kind you’ll find in most other gyms across the country. Win the conference. Dominate on the road. Make the NCAA Tournament and stay awhile if you can.
There is one item, though, that stands out. And for most of the program’s rise from mid-major darling to March menace, it’s one that’s been unattainable due largely to a scheduling technicality.
The Bulldogs can check off that milestone Saturday against Notre Dame with a trip to the Sweet 16 at stake
Separated by three hours and 150 miles of Indiana highway, sixth-seeded Butler (23-10) and the third-seeded Irish (30-5) met regularly from 1908-1994 but have faced off just once in the last 20 years. The teams spend a few hours in the same building every December at an annual doubleheader that also features Indiana and Purdue. Since the Hoosiers and the Boilermakers – Big Ten rivals – can’t play each other in that setting, neither can the Bulldogs and the Irish.
It’s led to an interesting phenomenon: Butler passing Notre Dame on college basketball’s escalator without actually getting an opportunity to prove it on the floor. That ends on a neutral court a couple of states away from home stakes that extend far beyond local bragging rights.
”One of the things we wanted to do was compete and beat all these Indiana schools,” Butler center Kameron Woods said. ”Anytime you play anybody in state, you just want to compete. But we know we’re both taking a plane back to Indiana at some point.”
One will head back sooner than the other. Whoever survives will extend a bounceback season that has returned the sheen to both programs. A year after going just 15-17, the Irish reached the 30-victory plateau for only the second time in team history while capturing the ACC Tournament.
It’s the kind of winter senior guard Pat Connaughton had in mind when he decided to return for one last shot rather than stick to baseball after the Baltimore Orioles picked the right-handed pitcher in the fourth round of the draft. Connaughton hasn’t ruled out ditching his glove completely if this basketball thing keeps going.
”I didn’t want to burn the basketball bridge before I knew what was across the bridge,” Connaughton said.
At the moment, it’s the Bulldogs. Butler is back to doing Butler-like things this time of year after enduring a difficult stretch in 2013-14 that included two coaching changes and a pratfall during its initial year in the Big East.
The Bulldogs do it with defense, tenacity and tempo – they beat Texas on Thursday despite making just five shots in the second half.
Their formula that has led to 17 NCAA Tournament wins since 2000. The Irish have six. It’s a difference not lost on Notre Dame.
”They’ve done so much in March as opposed to us, which is quite the contrary,” Connaughton said. ”We always see them play. We always see how many fans they get. It amps you up to play them not just in a game but in the biggest game of the year.”
ROSIE OUTLOOK: Butler expects to have junior forward Roosevelt Jones in the lineup. The team’s second-leading scorer left Thursday’s workmanlike win over Texas briefly in the second half after hyperextending his left knee. Jones returned to hit a difficult layup to help Butler pull away. He was limited in practice on Friday but joked coach Chris Holtmann would have to tackle him to keep him on the bench.
NO 3s? SO WHAT? While Notre Dame runs one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, it has become more versatile in recent weeks. The Irish average eight 3-pointers a game but made two each in the ACC final against Duke and two more on Thursday against Northeastern.
”We’ve shown we can spread the floor and get inside,” guard Jerian Grant said. ”We know teams will want to take the 3 away from us, so we try to counter attack by getting to the basket.”
EYE SEE YOU: Notre Dame guard Demetrious Jackson had his right eye raked during Thursday’s taut victory over Northeastern. Jackson missed a late free throw and committed a turnover that nearly led to another early tournament exit by the Irish. The eye was decidedly less red on Friday thanks in part to some drops delivered by the training staff and the relief of knowing his team’s season was alive.