Thad Motta made them competitive. Todd Lickliter made them known. Brad Stevens has done something even more amazing, he’s turned the Butler Bulldogs into a national power.
No they’re not Duke, or Kansas, or even Arizona, but you can no longer call Butler a mid-major. Shed the mid, they are just major.
After beating Kansas State 63-56, Butler will now go to a place where only George Mason of the CAA has gone, the final 4 as a mid-major conference competitor. This wasn’t an overnight thing either. It started with Thad Motta in 2000-01 leading the team to a 24 win season and a second round tourney appearance. Then Lickliter came in and in 7 seasons pulled out a pair of Sweet sixteen appearances beating national powers like Florida and Maryland in the process. The bar for Stevens was set very high to keep the momentum going after Lickliter’s departure. All he’s done is reel off two 30 win seasons and bring Butler to within two wins of a national championship, and in the process they replace Gonzaga as the best team not from a major conference in the country.
Gonzaga never could shed the mid-major tag with their ridiculous runs in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Gonzaga was the school the always got close, but never could get over the hump. Butler however has found a way to go from a dangerous mid-major program, to becoming a player in the college championship race in the 3 seasons since Brad Stevens took over. His in your face man to man defense gave fits to some of the best players in the country and limited their effectiveness on the outcome of contests this year whether you’re Jacob Pullen, Wes Johnson or Derrick Caracter.
They did it with a team that most would consider to be half as talented as Kansas State or any other major conference team. A sharp shooting Gordon Haywood, and in your face Shelvin Mack and a threat down low in Matt Howard, who in this is junior season has deferred to the former two and become a great complementary player.
They did it by blowing through the Horizon league after a shaky start to the season where Butler lost 4 games before January and almost dropping out of the top 25 in the process. Coach Stevens at one point sat his team down and showed them their runner-up trophy from the Horizon league last year, which led to an early ousting in the NCAA tourney. He used it as a motivational tool to get his team going, boy did it ever.
After an embarrassing loss to UAB, Butler hasn’t lost since. They hold the nation’s longest winning streak at 24, mostly against foes from the Horizon league. However since Thursday night against Syracuse, a team picked by many to win it all just a month ago, the dogs proved the win streak was no joke. They shut down Wesley Johnson and controlled the tempo all game long making the Orange play into their hands all night. Similarly against the Wildcats Jacob Pullen and Dennis Clemente were non-factors going a combined 11-30 with Mack and Ronald Nored in their grills all night preventing any open looks. The Bulldogs beat up two of the nation’s top ten teams all year and when it counted, kept their composure late to stave off any late comeback attempts.
Now what awaits them is an eventual home game at Lucas Oil Stadium next Saturday. The Butler campus is a paltry 6 miles away from the stadium, which means Tennessee or Michigan State can expect lots of blue and white in the stands for that game much like what North Carolina faced in the title game in Detroit last year. What everyone can also expect is every “Hoosiers” reference in the book over the next week. It doesn’t help that Butler plays in the same arena that housed the classic basketball film.
However, don’t confuse this team with Hickory high school. This is a magical run by a team not many people picked to be here, but it is also a team with enough bite to scare all opponents from the Horizon to the big East and the Big 12. These guys are small in budget and funds only, like Kanye West said, “Come on homie we major!” Butler most definitely is.