- Associated Press - Monday, November 8, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Ronald Nored looks around Hinkle Fieldhouse and sees change.

The larger crowds are already more enthusiastic. Gordon Hayward, Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes have been replaced by three freshmen. Fans are clamoring to see the Bulldogs’ new NCAA banner and, of course, a nation is ready to watch Butler’s encore.

College basketball had best beware: No. 17 Butler has even bigger plans this season.

“I think we are a step ahead of where we were last year at this time,” said Nored, the junior point guard. “I think back then, we were kind of going through the motions because we all knew what we were doing. Now, I think we’ve had to focus a little more because we have three freshmen to teach. So I think we’re a little better.”

Better?

It’s hard to fathom this little school outdoing last season’s crowning achievement.

But just seven months after coming within inches of bringing home a national title, the team that won the hearts of a nation with their relaxed attitude and team-first approach is chasing the same goal they always do _ winning it all.

The only difference this time is that people outside the locker room think Butler can do it, too.

“I think you’re always talking about that, but ours was a long, long process to get there,” coach Brad Stevens said. “It wasn’t just a five-game run in March. It was a long, long run of good teams and players.”

That part hasn’t changed, though the Bulldogs (33-5 last year) must plug bigger holes than usual.

Hayward, their do-everything swingman who caused so many matchup problems, left for the NBA after just two seasons and landed with Utah. He is the first Bulldogs player ever taken in the first round, and had he returned, many expected Butler to open this season ranked in the top five.

The bigger loss may be Veasley. The 6-foot-3 senior was the glue of last year’s team, the guy who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time whatever the Bulldogs needed.

But when Nored says this year’s team could be better, he means it.

On paper, the Bulldogs are bigger, deeper and more athletic than last spring when national media types started making all those comparisons between Butler and the team in the movie “Hoosiers.” What most forget is that the real-life “Hoosiers” team, Milan, reached high school’s Final Four in 1953 before winning their famous state title in 1954.

Or that these Bulldogs didn’t find their groove until January last season.

In November 2009, Nored was still trying to recover from surgery to put titanium rods in each of his shins, and Howard was routinely getting into foul trouble. The combination led to four early-season losses, knocking the Bulldogs out of the rankings. Butler followed that with a school record 25-game winning streak that put them on the brink of an implausible national title, and everyone forgot those early scars.

Everyone except, the Bulldogs.

“There are some things that, maybe, we’re doing a little better,” Howard said. “We’ve got some guys who have been through a lot in a year and there may be a few things that we’re a little behind on, but those things come with time and repetition.”

And experience.

Nored, Howard and shooting guard Shelvin Mack again form the nucleus of this year’s squad.

Butler expects 6-foot-10 sophomore Andrew Smith and 6-7 junior Garrett Butcher, both highly touted prep players, to do the dirty work inside. Butcher had offseason surgery on both knees and looks more confident on the court this season, while Smith is still trying to find his comfort level and avoid foul trouble.

Stevens plans to stick with a three-guard lineup that includes senior Shawn Vanzant, a defensive stopper.

But he also has three impressive newcomers.

Khyle Marshall, a 6-7 freshman from Florida, turned heads with his athleticism in the team’s two exhibition games. Indy native Chrishawn Hopkins, a 6-1 guard, gives them another player in the backcourt, and 6-9 freshman Erik Fromm from Bloomington, Ind., could spread things out with his 3-point shooting.

It’s enough to make the Bulldogs confident they can get back to the Final Four.

“I wouldn’t say much has changed,” Nored said. “We’re still running a lot of the same sets out of different looks, and I think the big emphasis has been getting Matt the ball inside and getting Shelvin the ball on the perimeter. I just think guys have heightened their level of play and we’ve got a lot of different tools.”

Enough to possibly make the nation embrace them all over again.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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