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Butler showing little guys how to get it done
HOUSTON (AP) - College basketball’s biggest party was once an exclusive affair, such a stretch for small schools there might as well have been “No Mid-Majors Allowed” signs plastered on the locker room doors at the Final Four.
Now, thanks to Butler, everybody thinks they’ve got a shot. And a blueprint for how to do it.
Butler has a mere 4,500 students, plays in an arena where a large popcorn counts as a luxury box and belongs to the Horizon League, which sounds more like a nonprofit group than a power conference. Yet the Bulldogs (28-9) will play in their second straight national title game Monday night, hoping to beat Connecticut (31-9) and erase the heartbreak of last April, when they came within a bounce of winning it all.
“I’ve thrown the ‘mid-major’ term out,” said Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director who chaired the selection committee for this year’s NCAA tournament. “There’s a lot of great basketball going on in this country, and kids are making choices to go to different schools. When you have good leadership and a good commitment to building your basketball program, you … can get it done in basketball.
“The reality is, one day, and it may be (Monday), there’s going to be one of those teams titled ‘mid-majors’ that’s going to emerge and win a national championship.”
Like other “mid-majors,” Butler has benefited from college basketball’s shifting landscape. Reductions in the number of scholarships have forced kids who once would have been role players at Duke, Kansas or UCLA to look elsewhere. The NBA’s prohibition on preps-to-pros can lead to instability at elite schools, with blue-chippers staying a year, maybe two, before bolting. The proliferation of TV channels means players and coaches don’t have to be in the spotlight to get exposure.
But it is “The Butler Way,” five principles that guide the team on and off the court, that makes the Bulldogs stand tall among the little guys.
Passed down by Butler coach Tony Hinkle, the tenets now are engraved on a stone outside the venerable fieldhouse named for him. But they might as well be tattooed on the players’ foreheads: Passion. Unity. Servanthood. Humility. Thankfulness.
In other words, team before all.
“One of the things I really liked about Butler is the way they approach things _ the team’s selfless attitude, always taking accountability for your actions,” senior Matt Howard said. “Those are really core values that govern a good team. That’s something that we try to live by every day.”
Sure, the Bulldogs have had standout players such as Gordon Hayward, an NBA lottery pick last year. But anyone who puts on a Butler uniform has to be willing to sacrifice personal goals for the team’s gain.
Shelvin Mack’s stock is rising because of the monster offensive games he’s having in the tournament, yet he also grabbed six rebounds in the win over VCU in the national semifinal. Junior Ronald Nored had been a fixture in the starting lineup since he got to Butler, yet he has willingly come off the bench in all but two of the last 14 games because coach Brad Stevens felt Chase Stigall was a better fit.
“It’s not rocket science,” Stevens said. “The key in any endeavor is adhering to those standards and trying to live up those standards, not trying to worry about anything else. It’s hard to do and easy to talk about.”
But the Butler players buy in because they see the results.
The Bulldogs have made five straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, developing a reputation as one of the toughest outs in the bracket. They’ve won at least one game four of the last five years, getting to the regional semifinals or better three times. They are as fundamentally sound as they come, and their defense is as relentless as it is oppressive.
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