Butler’s Done It For Years
The Final Four is the culmination of a fantastic four-season run.
by Chris Deaton
Their best player couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
Didn’t matter. They controlled the ball and their opponents fumbled. They played defense and their opponents never cracked it. They windowed home a game-clinching three that had no business dropping and their opponents’ jaws dropped further.
A buzzer sounded, a sideline rejoiced, a believing but befuddled smattering inside an NBA house cheered and chanted through the corridor.
B-U … T-L-E … R! YOU! A BULLDOG?
The bellows were surely disproportional to the bellies from which they blared—thunder in voices, not strength in numbers. 4,500 kids at an otherwise quiet school, you know? They didn’t often feast on this sort of victory. And they knew they’d hustle home to find their team on the map—or ESPN.com, really. They’d see the pictures, read the captions, feel the pride. “The Butler did it.” Damn straight.
So you remember, right? It was when Butler beat Indiana University, November 14, 2006 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indy.
It was a game of few national implications but for a spot in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals at the Garden. More notable was that the win marked BU’s back-to-back brush in the dustpan of Notre Dame and IU—the bigger schools, the more prominent schools, the schools that, with Purdue, ran the state’s hoops show. If only for a night, Butler had the sole stool on the stage.
The encore in NYC was magical. Neither Tennessee nor Gonzaga could solve the simple yet bewildering combo of fundamentals in all phases. After falling in the final, Mark Few’s summation was MasterCard priceless: “Butler outplayed us in any facet and every facet that I can possibly think of involved in basketball.”
Not once in that IU-UT-‘Zags stretch did Butler top 40 percent from the field. Winning ugly? It’s a crude way to describe their methods.
“When a team does the little things right, such as take care of the ball, play smart, play together, then the team is put in a position to win games,” said A.J. Graves, the slippery and clutch three-point gunner who banked home the aforementioned jumper to secure victory against Indiana. “That’s exactly what happened during our NIT run that I was a part of … and I think that’s exactly what has happened during the current team’s NCAA run.”
This year’s Bulldogs outfit has posted the breakthrough Tournament, yes. But the program has driven down this “Butler Way” for a while now. Many of their foremost Ws in recent years would’ve been recipes for luck were they not for design, the calculation that steadiness—that performance in minute one matters as much as it does in minutes 10 and 20 and 30 and final—transcends the ebb and flow of a game.
Brad Stevens calls it “resolve”—by other descriptors, Butler is “unflappable” or “poised” or downright astonishing, because no one plays ball like this. Some teams soar past indiscipline on the wings of star power or overcome talent gaps by using experience to glue together a behemoth. This Butler group has skilled individuals, but not of the paper variety—Matt Howard is the roster’s sole four-star recruit. They’ve seen big games, but they start three sophomores and a junior.
They’re the ultimate system team, and the system is simple: go about business with “the notion of playing basketball the ‘right’ way,” Graves said, and for the player who listened to his coaches from ages 12-18, it’s an obvious formula without need for explanation. Playing ball the “right” way wins games, even when playing right doesn’t necessarily equate to playing perfectly, or even playing well—
Because Shelvin Mack, their Vinnie Johnson, threw up cinder blocks in the second half.
Didn’t matter. They controlled the ball and Syracuse fumbled, leaving Jim Boeheim’s face a crinkly mess. They played defense and for all but a brief run in the final 20, Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins and the accompanying Orange weaponry never cracked it. Willie Veasley, Butler’s dogged forward, the undersized engine that not just could but does, rimmed and windowed home a game-clinching three that had no business dropping.
And envision those Syracuse jaws, sagging toward the floor.
A buzzer sounded, a sideline rejoiced, a believing but befuddled smattering inside the Jazz’s house could imagine uncharted territory—something new, something great: Butler: Elite 8.
Indeed, the Kansas State victory sent Butler home to the Final Four. But getting past Syracuse shed their true monkey—that their ceiling enabled them to beat the good but not the great. Butler put the car in gear and set their sights on Indy at the close of last Thursday; they pressed the accelerator Saturday, and the joyride commenced.
But before tip-off this weekend, remember this: Butler bought that car in 2006 and they’ve spent the last four years on a cross-country tour building the hype. It’s been a four-year story arc and things have come full-circle, down to the way their games are played and won.
Note: So ends the seemingly unending but just week-long fascination and love-fest with Butler basketball.