In 1998, a team from the Horizon League (Valparaiso) led by an experienced senior guard (Bryce Drew) made a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed.
Ten years later, another team from the Horizon League (Butler) led by an experienced senior guard (AJ Graves) will attempt to repeat history with a trip to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
True, there are major differences between these two teams; Valpo came into the tournament as a No. 13 seed, virtually unknown nationally. In contrast, over the past decade, Butler has been a known commodity, making the Big Dance six times—and last season, the Bulldogs gave eventual national champion Florida a handful in the Sweet 16.
Also, Butler comes into this tournament with a No. 7 seed, which makes the Bulldogs a favorite in their first-round contest against South Alabama. In many ways, Butler doesn't fit the mold of a classic Cinderella story.
But that doesn't mean that Butler can't make a splash in this year's tourney.
When identifying a team that could make a surprise run in the NCAA Tournament, there are three factors to consider:
1. Tournament experience
2. Consistent guard play
3. Solid coaching
The Bulldogs definitely have a stranglehold on the first two attributes, and the jury is still out on the third. But, if you look at the makeup of this team, this is a squad that will be a tough out for anybody.
Butler starts four seniors; its fifth starter, freshman forward Matt Howard, is perhaps its most valuable piece. Howard gives the Bulldogs an inside presence that they have not had in previous years. It almost gives this team a Gonzaga-type feel as a unit that can dump the ball down low and shoot it from the outside.
Graves is a senior guard who has been a starter for the majority of his career at Butler. He has been a solid leader and playmaker that has really stepped his game up the past couple of seasons. He is the type of player who will help a team have success in a tournament.
Point guard Mike Green is a complete player and arguably the most important piece of the puzzle. Not only is he the leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, he is also Butler's leading rebounder (6.6 RPG) and leading assist man (5.1 APG). This guy has been somewhat overshadowed, at least nationally, by Graves. This season, however, he has broken out. During one stretch this season, Green reached double digits in scoring in 16 consecutive games.
Outside of that stellar guard play, there are a couple of solid forwards. Howard has been a big addition in the low post, as he shoots 60 percent from the floor and 77.6 percent from the free-throw line. He is an athletic big man who can run the floor well and rebound with bigger guys.
Another senior, Pete Campbell, is a streaky shooter who has converted five or more 3-pointers on seven different occasions this season. Other role players—Julian Betko, Willie Veasley, and Drew Streicher—help this team to carve out a defensive identity that have allowed it to frustrate teams all season long.
First-year coach Brad Stevens may not have head coaching experience in the tournament, but he has coached under two men—Todd Lickliter (Iowa) and Thad Matta (Ohio State)—who have left Butler for Big Ten coaching jobs after a great deal of success in March.
He has gotten solid training and has guided this team to a 29-3 record, with some impressive wins coming against the likes of Florida State, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State, among others.
This is a complete team with experience and an ability to attack opponents in different ways, as well as the ability to defend effectively in the half court.
In other words, this is a dangerous bunch, no matter who they face off against.
In the first round, Butler should be able to hold off South Alabama, who lost its last game at home to a mediocre Middle Tennessee team.
Next up will come Tennessee, who can score a ton of points but will struggle to stop the penetration and outside shooting of the Bulldogs.
After that, a team like Louisville will give Butler problems, but the Cardinals are easily frustrated by tough defenses. That gives the Bulldogs the edge.
I think Butler's ride will come to a halt against a better North Carolina team in the Elite Eight. But, regardless of when it ends, the ride will be long, and the country will be forced to take notice.
In 1998, Bryce Drew hit a magical shot to propel Valparaiso past fourth-seeded Ole Miss in the first round.
Graves and the Butler Bulldogs are looking for some similar magic that will lead to a long run in March.