By Greg Logan, Newsday
NEW ORLEANS–Has there ever been a more magical run to the NCAA national championship game than the one Butler made last season when it went home to Indiana for the Final Four?
Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the buzzer seemed destined to beat Duke until it caromed off glass and the front of the rim, taking the fairy-tale finish with it. With Hayward in the NBA this season and defensive specialist Willie Veazley having graduated, it seemed there was no possibility of “Hoosiers II.”
Oh, the Bulldogs gave a good account of themselves in an early-season rematch against Duke at the Meadowlands, but that was a pale imitation of the title game.
What followed was a season-long struggle for Butler just to survive Horizon League play and qualify for the tournament.
But after last-second wins against Old Dominion and Big East champion Pittsburgh, the lightning is back in the bottle for Butler.
Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack have stepped into the lead roles to rekindle the fire of belief that these Bulldogs (25-9) are good enough to overcome Wisconsin (25-8) of the Big Ten in the Southeast Regional semifinals tonight to get within one victory of the Final Four.
“Getting to the tournament is really hard and, I mean, we got to the Sweet 16 this year because we had the ball last in two games,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said yesterday. “Otherwise, we’re done in the first round. So getting to the Final Four–we recognize how fortunate we were to have been in that situation. It’s almost fairy tale-type stuff.”
Without a doubt, Butler’s presence in the Sweet 16 is a far greater surprise this season than it was a year ago. Back then, the Bulldogs were viewed as the most likely of the mid-majors to succeed. But they lost four of their first eight games this season and had a midseason stretch where they lost four of five, getting knocked off by the likes of Wright State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State. Not exactly Murderer’s Row.
It wasn’t easy being the “name” team with a target on your jersey. Butler was accustomed to that treatment within the confines of the Horizon League, but Stevens admitted, “As much as everybody can tell you about what it’s going to be like coming off a national championship game, it doesn’t do it justice until you live it. And I think we certainly lived through some of those things. This is as proud of a team as I’ve ever been for handling basketball adversity.”
Coach Bo Ryan’s Badgers, one of two teams to defeat No. 1 Ohio State this season, present another challenge if only because they are equally well-schooled in the fundamentals as the Bulldogs. No team in the country maximizes each possession like Wisconsin, which is fourth-ranked in defense, first in free-throw percentage and first in fewest turnovers.
Forward Jon Leuer and point guard Jordan Taylor are first-team All-Big Ten and both are Wooden Award candidates for player of the year. Stevens said Taylor, in particular, “makes them a national title contender.”
But the truth is that last year wasn’t Butler’s first time at the ball. This is the Bulldogs’ fourth trip to the Sweet 16 since 2003.
While others are talking of fitting them for a glass slipper again, Stevens said, “We never talk about how it’ll be a big surprise if it happens. We talk about: ‘Here’s what we need to do.’
“The Cinderella tag has been placed on us. Just like the ‘Hoosiers’ talk last year, we’ll gladly take it. It’s not a bad thing to be the underdog.”