Today is a slow day for the No. 8-seeded Butler men’s basketball team. Some were pretending to be members of the media, while others were ready to go back to bed.
Senior guard Shawn Vanzant took a short, mostly unnoticed nap at an afternoon press conference, and senior forward Matt Howard was walking around the arena in the clothes he very well may have slept in.
The players appear to be somewhat sleep-deprived, a revealing quality reminding all that the team is a bunch of “tweens” who have homework to do when they’re not on the basketball court.
But while the Bulldog starters were being interviewed, the usual Butler substitutes were in their locker room entertaining themselves.
Freshman forward Khyle Marshall was laughing with some Indianapolis media members, and other players were conducting interviews of their own teammates.
Junior forward Garrett Butcher and senior guard Grant Leiendecker took it upon themselves to make freshman forward Erik Fromm feel included in the media day activities, using smart phones and cameras to record Fromm’s insight on trivial things.
“My red hair gets even more fiery in the summer,” Fromm said. “And I’ve thought about growing a beard and becoming a lumberjack, if [head coach Brad Stevens] would let me.”
Stevens was perhaps the most focused of all Bulldogs, discussing everything from how recent success has changed recruiting to the status of sophomore center Andrew Smith’s left ankle, which was sprained last night against No. 4 seed Wisconsin.
“Smith will likely not practice today,” Stevens said. “We’ll test him in shoot around tomorrow morning, and he should be ready to go tomorrow.”
Stevens also said awareness has certainly increased on the recruiting trail but that he and the staff are also not going to pretend to be something they’re not.
“We’re very aware of who we are, and we’re focused on recruiting guys that are passionate about come to Butler, want to represent themselves and their team well and ultimately want to be a great student,” he said.
Howard, despite having “bed head” earlier, combed his hair and was his usual academic self at the afternoon press conference.
“Execution plays a part in it, but being prepared and ready to play definitely helps,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever played Florida, and [coaching] is really critical at this time of year when you don’t know teams that well.”
Junior guard Shelvin Mack said that rebounding will be a key to the Elite 8 matchup.
“[Rebounding] will be our main goal tomorrow against Florida, as it’s been the whole tournament,” he said.”
Both teams share a high amount of experience in NCAA tournament play, so wide eyes and speechlessness shouldn’t affect the final result.
Florida returned five starters from last season, which include three current seniors and quick junior guard Erving Walker.
Senior forward Chandler Parsons scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out seven assists in Florida’s Sweet 16 game against No. 3 Brigham Young last night.
He was more than supported by senior forward Alex Tyus, who seized a career-high 17 rebounds and scored 19 points, one shy of his career high in scoring.
Butler starts two seniors, Howard and guard Shawn Vanzant, alongside the only other upperclassman in Mack, but Butler also has junior guard Ronald Nored, the starting point guard last season, and senior 3-point shooting specialist Zach Hahn.
Still, Stevens quelled the idea that experience determines the outcome of games.
“Experience plays a role, but it doesn’t play the same role as preparation or executing does during those 40 minutes,” he said.
The game, which will determine the winner of the Southeast Region, tips at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.
Although the Bulldogs and Gators may have met twice in past NCAA tourney’s, the schools couldn’t be more different. And, sure, while they might have two national championship titles on us, Butler is the only team from last year’s tournament that’s still up for the big win. Click and drag the chart to see how else we compare:
During Butler’s Sweet 16 game against No. 4-seed Wisconsin, former Butler men’s basketball player LaVall Jordan tweeted, “THE GAME HONORS TOUGHNESS.”
No. 5 seed Butler (26-9) played with toughness throughout the game and defeated the Badgers (25-9), 61-54, making the Bulldogs the only team from the 2010 Final Four still in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Butler is now on a 12-game winning streak and is 8-1 in its last nine NCAA tournament games.
The Bulldogs will face the No.2-seeded Florida Gators in the Elite 8 Saturday in New Orleans.
A late second-half comeback had Bulldog fans thinking that the game might have been like the previous two during this NCAA tournament, but a 3-pointer by junior guard Shelvin Mack broke a Butler scoring draught and made the score 55-49 with just less than a minute to play.
“I was disappointed in the way we were playing at the time, but now, I could care less,” head coach Brad Stevens said.
Freshman forward Khyle Marshall, who finished the game with seven points and seven rebounds, said that Butler “got caught taking its foot off the pedal and was too focused on running time off the clock.”
“We weren’t moving the ball well and weren’t strong with it in our hands,” senior forward Matt Howard said.
Stevens refocused them, and an offensive rebound by Howard with 29 seconds remaining all but sealed the win for the Bulldogs.
Junior guard Shelvin Mack called Howard’s offensive rebound “a crucial play in the game.”
“Matt plays for his team and sacrifices his body,” Mack said.
Wisconsin junior guard Jordan Taylor agreed.
“They’re scrappy and relentless,” he said. “They’re tough kids.”
Taylor led all scorers with 22 points, but it took him 19 shots to get there and he was 3-of-10 from behind the 3-point arc.
Taylor, a First-Team All-Big Ten player averaging 7.7 assists per game this season, had two assists against the Bulldogs.
Assists were hard to come by for the Badgers, who shot 30.4 percent from the field and just 27.3 percent in the second half.
Senior forward Jon Leuer, also a First-Team All-Big Ten player, normally averages 18.7 points per game. He scored three against the Bulldogs, who held him to 1-of-12 shooting from the field and 1-of-6 from behind the arc.
The three-point game ended Leuer’s streak of 40 consecutive games of double-digit scoring.
Butler’s team defense was suffocating, and the speed of senior guard Shawn Vanzant certainly helped. Vanzant had two steals and five other Bulldogs had at least one in the game.
Vanzant was proficient on the offensive end as well, scoring 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
Mack had 13 points and sophomore center Andrew Smith had eight before having his second-half minutes limited by a slight left ankle sprain.
Howard was the blue ribbon award-winner, though. He scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and even managed to grab two steals, while fouling only once.
“Matt’s a guy who, when it’s a one-and-done situation, is a fighter and winner,” Stevens said. “His play has been special.”
The Bulldogs will need special play against the Gators, who defeated the No. 3 BYU Cougars before Butler took the court.
“It’s going to be tough Saturday to get a win against a team and a program we know well,” Stevens said. “But we’re not playing a program—we’re playing a team for 40 minutes, and that’s it.”
Now that evening and cooler weather have struck the Butler fans in New Orleans, attentions have turned from good food to good basketball.
Fans, no matter the hotel they were staying in, made their way to the JW Marriott in downtown New Orleans to wish the team good luck.
Butler Bulldog fans of all ages took pictures together, gave high fives, shared travel stories and compared festive fan gear outside the team hotel.
Butler President Bobby Fong and Athletic Director Barry Collier were both present among the hundreds of fans gathering as a prelude to tonight’s Sweet 16 game against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Butler students, many of whom arrived in “The Big Easy” this afternoon, are also now a part of the Butler crowd.
Al Carroll, president-elect of the Student Government Association, was one such student.
“I love seeing that there’s a lot of Butler fans here in New Orleans,” he said. “People from all over the country made the trip, and it just adds to the experience.”
Carroll, who said that the Bulldogs have never given a reason for his support to falter, said that even fans of other Bulldog schools have been showing support for the No. 8-seeded Butler team.
“We met some people from Mississippi State at our hotel. They said ‘Bulldogs are Bulldogs, no matter the school.’”
Carroll also said he’s enjoying the run Butler is making, even though some still consider the team underdogs.
“Some people say we should be even more of an underdog now, since last year we were a No. 5 seed and now we’re a No. 8 seed.”
Both he and Levester Johnson, vice president for student affairs at Butler, are confident that Butler will leave New Orleans Arena tonight with a ticket to the Elite 8.
“I think the tenacity of our team and that they’re prepared will allow them to go far,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we could’ve gotten a better matchup, and the track ahead of us will mean we can get back to the Final Four.”
“I’m looking forward to a couple more days down here.”
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