Butler wins, and does it the right way
When Butler stunningly streaked to last year’s national championship game, its heartwarming trek transcended college basketball.
The nation rallied around the tiny 4,400-student school in Indianapolis as it came up just a rimmed-out, half-court shot short of beating Duke in what would have been a fairy-tale ending in the Bulldogs’ hometown.
“I felt last year that the run that the team had was good for our country,” Butler athletic director Barry Collier said. “The little guy who can get in there and fight and have a chance.”
That’s what the nation still thinks of eighth-seeded Butler, despite its 70-62 win over 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday night in a gritty national semifinal of the NCAA tournament. And with the Bulldogs amazingly back in the national title game for a second straight year, they know public perception isn’t reality.
“This,” Collier said, “is different.”
Yet what will be the same Monday night when Butler plays third-seeded Connecticut in the national title game is that a majority of the country will once again be rooting for the Bulldogs.
They want to see “the little guy” finally shatter Cinderella’s glass slipper.
But they should be cheering for Butler for a far more important reason: The Bulldogs and their bright young coach, Brad Stevens, do things right both on and off the court.
They’re not only winning, but doing it without major violations of NCAA rules. That’s a rarity in this era of scandal-riddled collegiate athletics defined by academic misconduct, pay-for-play schemes and FBI investigations.
It’s also great for watered-down college basketball, which no one seemingly cares about anymore until the start of the NCAA tournament.
“It just makes all of this so much better, so much bigger,” Butler guard Zach Hahn said. “It’s something that I think really separates what we do from a lot of other teams. I’m not saying by any means that other teams do it the wrong way, I’m just saying that Coach Stevens is a very ethical guy and everything we do is really for the right reasons.”
And that mindset continues to translate to success on the court for Butler, which now has a 10-1 record in the last two NCAA tournaments. It’s the same one that kept the Bulldogs from cowering to VCU’s 3-point barrage in the game’s opening minutes Saturday night.
The Rams missed their first three 3-point attempts, but made four of their next five to race to a 15-7 lead with 13:12 left in the first half. VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez pushed the ball up the court and the Rams' relentless trapping presence made the game’s pace frenetic.
It was the same VCU assault that top-seeded Kansas was never able to recover from early in its embarrassing Southwest Regional final loss to the Rams.
But instead of faltering, Butler simply found a way to overcome the onslaught. The Bulldogs slowed the game’s tempo, cut VCU’s 3-point attempts and rebounded aggressively behind senior forward Matt Howard, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.
And by halftime, the Bulldogs somehow led 34-28 despite shooting just 33 percent from the field and missing 10 of 13 3-point attempts.
But that’s the perseverance we’ve come to expect from these resilient Bulldogs.
“This year we know what we have to do,” guard Ronald Nored said. “Last year, we were still at a point where we were pretty excited just to be here. This year we’re excited to be here, but now that we’re here, we have business. We have jobs to do.”
For Butler junior point guard Shelvin Mack, that means taking over when he has to. He did just that during a crucial less-than-two-and-a-half-minute stretch in the second half by scoring 10 straight points to increase the Bulldogs’ lead from a single point to seven with 8:56 left in the game.
It happened quietly, mirroring Mack's demeanor, which is one of the reasons he is among college basketball’s most unknown stars.
“He doesn’t get that recognition like other players,” said Butler guard Shawn Vanzant of Mack, who scored a team-high 24 points. “But I think they’re looking at him now.”
By then, VCU’s 3-point shooting prowess that carried them from an NCAA tournament play-in game participant to the Final Four had disappeared. The Rams missed 10 of their last 14 3-point attempts.
“Our goal was to run the shooters off the line and not let them just catch and shoot,” Hahn said. “We wanted to make them drivers and dump it down and stuff. I feel like that’s why we kind of won the game.”
While the country is back on the Butler bandwagon, it wouldn’t have been just two months ago. Back then, the Bulldogs had lost three straight games in the Horizon League, and their season was on the brink.
Since then, though, they haven’t lost during their remarkable 14-game winning streak.
“There was a time where we didn’t think we’d be at the point that we are now,” Nored said. “It just feels great to be here.”
That showed after the game as Butler’s players and Stevens stood on the court. They waved to cheering fans, hugged one another, and guard Chase Stigall held the leash of the team’s mascot, an English bulldog named Blue II.
“It’s just a group of guys that really care about basketball, care about each other and we care about the school,” Hahn said.
Now, that’s something to cheer about.