The Butler Bulldogs stamped their ticket to the Sweet 16 this year in spectacular fashion, edging out a bruising Old Dominion team with a tip-in at the buzzer and muscling their way past No. 1 seed Pittsburgh with a clutch free throw late in the game.
However, despite defeating two of the most physical teams in the tournament, the Bulldogs’ improbable run has been largely overshadowed by the successes of fellow mid-majors VCU and Richmond.
In addition, numerous writers have focused their attention on the dramatic nature of Butler’s victories, choosing to revisit the officiating in the Bulldogs’ games and to scrutinize Pittsburgh for their early exit, rather than to highlight Butler’s impressive play.
Although Butler struggled at times this season after losing Gordon Hayward—the best player in school history and catalyst for the Bulldogs’ 2010 championship run—to the NBA, the team pulled things together in time for the NCAA tournament.
Butler finished the season on a nine-game win streak, cruising to the Horizon League title and securing a bid to the Big Dance.
Once safely in the tournament, the Bulldogs built on their penchant for late-game heroics, defeating Old Dominion with a Matt Howard putback as time expired.
Although Butler did not finish the game as coach Brad Stevens drew up, the Bulldogs demonstrated their basketball intelligence and big-game experience from last year’s tournament, staying calm under pressure and making the fundamental plays to win the game when their set play broke down.
As Howard explained: “When you’ve been in those situations and been through the battles and the close games and won them different ways, you have confidence that you’re going to be able to pull it out.”
In Butler’s next game against Pittsburgh, Howard again provided the crucial play, sinking a free throw with less than a second left on the clock to give the Bulldogs the victory.
Securing the rebound off Gilbert Brown’s missed foul shot, Howard attracted the attention of the officials by flailing his arms and tossing the ball in the air, giving himself the chance to win the game on the line.
Even when the game seemed out of reach, the Bulldogs remained collected, and Howard knew exactly what to do when the ball landed in his hands after Brown’s missed shot.
As coach Brad Stevens described: “These guys don’t fold, they are Bulldogs in every sense of the word.”
Over the past two years, the Bulldogs have demonstrated that winning in the NCAA tournament is about much more than talent alone. Although Butler has only sent one player—Hayward—to the NBA in the past 60 years (current players Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are questionable pro prospects at best), the Bulldogs continue to compete with the top teams in the nation.
Up to this point, Butler has beat three No. 1 seeds in the past two NCAA tournaments—more than any other team. In addition, the Bulldogs had arguably the most difficult road to the Sweet 16, defeating two of the top 10 rebounding teams in the country.
In order to be successful, Butler players have had to combine fundamental basketball with passionate defense, complete effort, late-game execution and veteran leadership.
Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, the Bulldogs’ two best players and natural leaders, coupled with cool-minded and well-prepared coach Brad Stevens, have been critical to the team’s achievements.
Possessing extensive tournament experience, this veteran nucleus has been able to will Butler through games in which they were clearly overmatched.
As Stevens clarified: “We're not better than Old Dominion. We're not better than Pittsburgh, we just had the ball last.”
In other words, Butler made the decisive plays at the end of both games to win, regardless of skill or matchup.
The Bulldogs can head into their game with No. 4 seed Wisconsin knowing that they have already beat the best team in their region and with the signature confidence that has allowed them to secure victory in the closing stages of games.
The Bulldogs have a legitimate shot at another Final Four run as long as they maintain their ability to close out games, an invaluable skill that makes them a threat to any team remaining in the NCAA tournament field.