Butler casts aside longtime role as NCAA Tourney underdog
Butler spent more than a decade as America's favorite NCAA Tournament darling.
The little school that could became a trendy upset pick, a favorite among dog-loving basketball fans and a model program for other Division I mid-majors. It strung together a resume that made some of college basketball's biggest names jealous — nine tourney appearances in 14 years, four trips to the Sweet 16 and back-to-back national runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011.
Today, Butler has outgrown its underdog status. When the fourth-seeded Bulldogs open play Thursday in Milwaukee, they will be the favorite after earning the highest seed in school history.
"I think it speaks to the quality of our season and the work we've put into it throughout the year," coach Chris Holtmann said after the pairings were announced Sunday. "But seeding doesn't really matter because at this time of the year, anyone you play is going to be good."
The Bulldogs understand that notion better than any school in this 68-team field because they spent so much time on the flip side.
In 2000, they nearly ended Florida's run to the national championship game — in the first round.
In 2001, they upset Wake Forest for their first NCAA Tourney victory.
In 2003, they stunned fourth-seeded Louisville to reach their first regional semifinal.
Seven years later, the Bulldogs embarked on their most ambitious journey of all, going from a No. 5 seed to within a buzzer-beating heave of beating Duke in a national championship game played eight miles from their campus. Butler made it back the next year in Houston, too, as an eight-seed, only to be undone by the worst shooting percentage (18) in championship game history.
Over the years, star players such as Andrew Chrabascz have heard the tales and learned the lessons about how Butler did it.
But mostly, those points were reinforced by the daily reminders sprinkled throughout Hinkle Fieldhouse.
"That's what makes Butler so special," said Chrabascz, an undersized senior forward from Rhode Island. "You have these banners reminding you of what is so special, of what has happened at this school."
And what could still come.
This season the Bulldogs (23-8) have been anything but Cinderella.
They handed defending national champion and top overall seed Villanova two of its three losses. They beat second-seeded Arizona and ninth-seeded Vanderbilt on a neutral court. They beat sixth-seeded Cincinnati, eighth-seeded Northwestern and 13th-seeded Vermont and Bucknell at home. They swept 10th-seeded Marquette, split with 11th-seeded Providence and won road games at ninth-seeded Seton Hall and 11th-seeded Xavier.
They're 14-5 against the tourney field.
Next up is 13th-seeded Winthrop, a team that looks a lot on paper like those old Butler teams America fell in love with.
The Eagles lost two games to tourney-bound teams, at Florida State and at Dayton, but beat Illinois. They shared the Big South regular-season title, swept three games to claim the conference's automatic bid and have a chance to pull another upset exactly 10 years after knocking off Notre Dame.
Winthrop (26-6) has one of the nation's most dynamic scoring guards, Keon Johnson (22.5 points), and a junior-senior dominated rotation.
So this year, Butler must flip the script.
"Those four-13, five-12 games have really been a 50-50 proposition the last few years," Holtmann said. "It really all depends on how you play and it's going to be a test and a great challenge."
But success hasn't changed Butler's unique style.
Players arrived to Sunday's selection show party following a two-hour practice at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Nobody dared to discuss any potential future matchups, and many, including Holtmann, were just grateful to receive one of the precious at-large bids.
How much has changed?
A decade ago, recruiting players to Butler with the promise of making the tourney field any given year seemed about as implausible as the Bulldogs playing for a national title. Today, it's the reality.
"I always watched the tournament growing up and I always wanted to play in the tournament," said grad transfer Avery Woodson, who chose Butler over VCU and Mississippi rather than staying at Memphis in part so he could appear in his only NCAA Tournament. "When you get that chance, you have to take advantage of it."
Holtmann wouldn't expect anything less from Butler as the underdog or the favorite.
"I don't think you get into this tournament and think it's going to be easy or you'll have the wrong mindset," he said. "It's not a rite of passage and we don't want to act like it's a rite of passage."