- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Life changes when, as a mid-major from the not-so-hallowed Horizon League, you come within a missed baseline jumper of winning the NCAA basketball championship. Matt Howard didn’t realize how much, though, until his Butler Bulldogs lost a few games earlier this season “and the [opposing] fans rushed the court,” he said Wednesday at Verizon Center. “And we’re not even a top 25 team this year.”

No, Butler isn’t in the rankings; but it’s still Butler, still the Impossible Dream Team that pushed Duke to the limit in the title game last April before losing 61-59. And when you beat the Bulldogs, well, you almost feel like you’ve won the NCAA championship yourself.

So it went for Butler this season — or for much of it, anyway. The Bulldogs would go to Milwaukee or Wright State or Valparaiso, the crowd would be in full froth, and it would be obvious that it wasn’t Just Another Game. Granted, the players were used to having “a target on our back” because of all the success they’ve had, guard Zach Hahn said, “but what happened last year just increased that.”

Butler still managed to earn an NCAA bid for the fifth straight year, reeling off nine straight wins at the end, but it was far from a ticker-tape parade for the Bulldogs. Indeed, just six weeks ago, they were 14-9 and — after a road loss to last-place Youngstown State — not even looking like a lock for the NIT.

“How many times do you see teams split apart or point fingers after you make a run like [Butler did last year] and things don’t go perfectly the next year?” coach Brad Stevens said. “That never happened this year. Our guys handled themselves as well during the tough times as they did during the very best of times.”

What tended to get overlooked, or at least underplayed, is that this isn’t the same group that that dueled Duke to the death. For starters, Gordon Haywood, the top scorer and rebounder last season, turned pro after his sophomore year and was taken ninth in the NBA draft by the Utah Jazz. (It was the first time a Butler player had left school early.) The Bulldogs also lost Willie Veasley, another key contributor, to graduation. Without those two — and what they brought to the defense, in particular, with their ability to guard multiple positions — the team had trouble getting traction.

Late in the season, though, the players began to knuckle down, and “kind of got back to who we were,” Stevens said — that is, a fundamentally sound team that tries to beat you on both ends. This renewed commitment got them an 8-seed in the Southeast Region and a matchup here Thursday with Old Dominion, the Colonial Athletic Association tournament champ. Or to put it another way: mid-major stalwart vs. mid-major stalwart.

This, after all, is ODU’s fourth trip to the tourney since 2005. Last March, the Monarchs knocked off Notre Dame in the first round. And earlier this season, they waded through St. Peter’s, Clemson and Xavier to win the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. All three of those teams are in the NCAAs. The confidence that comes from that — and from seeing what Butler did last year — has the players thinking, hey, maybe WE could pull a Butler.

“We know it doesn’t matter how big your school is or how big your conference is,” ODU point guard Darius James said. “If you’re the better team on that day, you’re going to win. Basketball is basketball, and we can play with anybody. That’s why we’ve had a hard time scheduling [out-of-conference] games lately. The bigger programs don’t want any part of us.”

It’s amazing the trickle-down effect a run like Butler’s — or like George Mason’s in 2006 — can have on EVERY mid-major. It raises the Bulldogs’ and Patriots’ profiles, sure, but it also raises everybody else’s hopes. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a run; sometimes a single first-round upset can have that kind of impact.

Take Bucknell’s shocker over third-seeded Kansas in 2005. “If it wasn’t for that win,” said Mike Muscala, the Bison’s big man, “I wouldn’t be here. That really put Bucknell on the map.” To which coach Dave Paulsen, whose team meets 3-seed Connecticut on Thursday, added: “Every kid in that [locker] room is here because of Kansas. And every coach is here because of Kansas. I had some other opportunities open to me, but that game told me that the athletic-and-academic thing [at Bucknell] CAN work together.”

Before Bucknell butts up against UConn on Thursday night, though, Butler and Old Dominion will kick off the early session at 12:40. Somebody asked Howard, the 6-foot-8 senior, if the Bulldogs felt burdened by the weight of greater expectations, by the pressure to duplicate last year’s heroics. “You need to look at it the other way,” he said. “The year before, we lost in the first round and, you know, a lot of people expected us to do the same thing [they did last season]. So there’s pressure no matter what situation you’re in — if you let that get into your head.”

Butler might have talent and tournament experience, but it’s clearly The Year After for the Bulldogs. It didn’t have to be, though, as their coach is reminded every time he watches Haywood — gone but not forgotten — on TV.

“I ordered NBA League Pass for the first time in my life,” Stevens said. “I’ve watched more Utah Jazz games than I have in my entire 33 years combined before this — and have enjoyed every minute of watching him and cheering him on from afar.”

Part of him, no doubt, probably wishes Haywood had stuck around for another season. Still, the memories of last year’s magical ride are a lot more than most mid-major coaches have … and figure to keep him warm in the winters ahead

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