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Butler doesn't mind being dogs

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Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com. Check out his Yardbarker blog. MORE>>
 
   
 

INDIANAPOLIS

Brad Stevens still has that boyish smile that helped make him famous last March as Butler ran through the NCAA tournament en route to a near-upset over Duke in the championship game.

There he sat in his cozy office in Hinkle Fieldhouse a couple weeks ago, sporting a 5-4 record and not a single resume victory.

The Bulldogs opened the season with a loss to Louisville in Rick Pitino's brand-new building, dropped an overtime game at home to Evansville (without starting point guard Ronald Nored), then played Duke close in New Jersey before losing 51-49 at Xavier.

In most programs, panic would have ensued — especially for a team that doesn't have a chance to earn any resume wins in the Horizon League.

Ahead was a home game against Stanford, a likely Pac-10 bottom-tier club, and then a trip out west for Christmas in the Diamond Head Classic — where the pressure was squarely on Stevens & Co. to return with a couple meaningful wins.

Otherwise, Butler would have to win the Horizon league tournament just to get back into the Big Dance.

"We've got to play well against Stanford," Stevens said when the discussion turned to the opportunity ahead in Hawaii. "That's honestly our goal. I don't think about all that stuff. We just play the schedule in front of us and try to get better."

"It's just business as usual," star guard Shelvin Mack added.

Butler handled that business, returning from Hawaii with some hardware and a resume that will now look far different come March when the Selection Committee does its due diligence.

The trip began with a win over Utah, but victories over Florida State and Washington State — in the championship game — were critical for a team that now heads into the virtual anonymity of Horizon League play.

"We're feeling much better now," Mack admitted. "We're starting to put things together and people are starting to understand their roles now — and know what they're capable of doing."

This is a team that returned three starters — Mack, Matt Howard and Nored — but lost NBA first-rounder Gordon Hayward and glue guy Willie Veasley.

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It's also a team that was counted out by virtually everyone who witnessed the debacle in Madison Square Garden a year ago, when Greg Monroe and Georgetown manhandled the Bulldogs.

"This is two different teams," Stevens said. "Two different scenarios. This year it's about trying to figure out who's going to play the best together."

Last year, roles were already defined.

Mack's shots are finally falling, Nored is finally healthy and Howard — who averaged 18.7 points and 8.7 boards in Hawaii — is playing the best basketball of his career and staying out of foul trouble.

This is a team that took Duke, back when the Blue Devils had Kyrie Irving, to the brink on a neutral court. In fact, the Bulldogs were up midway through the second half when Mack was forced to call it a day after both of his legs cramped up.

"I felt like we could have won that game," Mack said.

But the Bulldogs didn't — and then dropped one to Xavier.

The pressure was on, but this team takes its cue from their even-keeled coach — and has found a way to get back on track entering the New Year.

"Some people say we're overrated again," Mack said. "But it was the same thing last year."

And we all know where that ended.

Tagged: Duke, Butler, Ronald Nored, Shelvin Mack, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored

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