Mid-major bullying big boys
INDIANAPOLIS — The banners hanging from Hinkle Fieldhouse's dusty rafters are a constant reminder of achievement at Butler.
More national championship game appearances than any school in America over the last 3 years. The first Indiana school to reach back-to-back Final Fours. Four trips to the regional semifinals in the last decade.
It's enough to make even the best-known basketball programs jealous, and the Bulldogs are at it again.
After beating three top 10 teams for the first time in school history and moving into the top 10 this week for the first time in nearly 5 years, Butler is trying to show the college basketball world that beating the big boys, winning games late and making the impossible look plausible isn't all that unusual anymore around here.
"I think you can teach what Butler is teaching, but I think more goes into it than just teaching it. It's the entire environment," said Todd Lickliter, the coach who led Butler to the regional semifinals in 2003 and 2007 before taking the Iowa job. He is now at nearby Marian University, a NAIA school, and watched one of college basketball's plays of the year from the stands last Saturday when Butler knocked off Gonzaga on a buzzer beater.
"As a coach, you send messages with everything you do in the program, from the top down," he said. "The message Butler has sent is that it has fierce competitors who have a joy for competition and a joy for the game. Let me tell you, nobody had more joy in the game than Butler did the other night."
Somehow no program seems to have more charming stories than this little school just a few miles north of downtown Indianapolis:
— During the 2003 NCAA tournament, forward Joel Cornette traded shoes with teammate Rob Walls after chasing a loose ball out of bounds and knocking over a water cooler during an upset of Louisville. The next day, Cornette and two other seniors were selling tickets to their own regional semifinal game at a folding table in the front hallway of the fieldhouse.
— Four years later, after returning to the regional round, shooting guard A.J. Graves was asked whether the deep background inside St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome might be a problem for the Bulldogs. Graves, who grew up in Switz City, a rural Indiana community of less than 300 people about 85 miles southeast of Indy, explained he was comfortable with deep backgrounds because he grew up around fields that stretched for miles.
— Butler's 2010 tourney run included Matt Howard borrowing a shoelace from Emerson Kampen for one game, players attending classes the day of the national championship game and Howard having the presence of mind to actually set a pick that gave Gordon Hayward an open half-court heave that nearly beat Duke.
Head coach Brad Stevens, of course, is only around now because he quit a promising business career with Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company based in Indy, to become a volunteer coach at Butler in 2000 and then walked away from the big money offered by even bigger schools.
This season stories include having a walk-on make a spinning 6-foot jumper to beat No. 1 Indiana, a sharp-shooter bank in a 3-pointer to beat Marquette and Roosevelt Jones' incredible steal with 3.5 seconds left and his 14-foot floater to upset No. 8 Gonzaga last weekend on national television. It's not even February yet