- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The question that comes to mind is not how Butler got back to the Elite Eight, but rather how did these Bulldogs lose to Evansville and Youngstown State?
The reason is the Bulldogs weren’t perfect this season. They were flawed like every other team. They needed to go through some growing pains, and mercy, have they grown -- a team that started 6-5 in the Horizon League is one win away from another Final Four appearance after beating Wisconsin 61-54 on Thursday night. Meanwhile, Duke -- the team that beat Butler in a thrilling national championship game -- is out of the field after being pummeled by Arizona.
“I thought this team had a chance to be a good team, but even I’ve been unbelievably impressed with its resiliency and ability to play at a higher level,’’ said the calmest coach in Division I, Butler’s Brad Stevens.
“When we lost to Youngstown and to Evansville, it was a few possessions that we didn’t control,’’ added Butler junior guard Shelvin Mack. “We didn’t dive on the ball, we didn’t take charges, we didn’t do the things we needed to win.’’
Well, the Bulldogs haven’t lost since their Feb. 3 defeat to a Youngstown State team that finished 2-16 in conference play. And that includes a road win over Milwaukee -- a team that beat Butler twice this season -- in the Horizon League championship to secure a bid.
Since the tournament started, the Bulldogs have made winning plays in the final seconds. Against Old Dominion, Matt Howard made a last-second bucket. Against Pitt, Howard's rebound and subsequent free throw saved the game after a foul by Mack nearly cost Butler the match.
“The foul is over. I keep telling my teammates that, to let it go and move onto the next one,’’ said Mack, in jest. “Yeah, it’s been crazy, there were just a few plays here and there in the first game or we’d be home, and then a few plays here or there in the second game against Pitt or we’d be home. So we wanted to make sure we got off to a fast start.’’
And they did just that. Butler busted out on Wisconsin with a nine-point halftime lead and grew it to 20 in the second half before UW mounted a furious comeback to make it a one-possession game in the final minute. But then Mack hit yet another jumper, and after he missed a free throw a possession later, Howard was there with an offensive rebound. The senior forward finished with 20 points and 12 boards
Butler now faces Florida here at New Orleans Arena on Saturday, with a trip to Houston on the line.
“They’re scrappy, relentless,’’ said Wisconsin junior guard Jordan Taylor. “I don’t know, they’re just tough kids. They never quit. That’s what makes them winners.’’
Taylor finished with 22, but Wisconsin senior forward Jon Leuer was pestered so much defensively that he finished just 1-of-12 from the field. As a team, the Badgers shot 30.4 percent, their second-worst performance of the season.
“They’re just tough kids that are all-around good players,’’ Leuer said. “They play to their strengths.’’
Butler is hardly some cuddly, lower-profile team. You can't name a lock for the NBA draft on the Pitt team, but Mack is a first-round pick and Howard, at the very least, is a second-round pick, according to multiple NBA decision-makers. So that would mean that in the past two seasons the Bulldogs will have produced three NBA players, three more than Pitt and at least one more than Wisconsin.
But Butler still had to earn its NCAA tournament berth the hard way, since the Horizon League does not receive much respect. Losing five conference games changed the perception of this team. The nonconference slate was rugged, with games at Louisville and Xavier and against Duke in New Jersey -- all losses. But let’s not forget that Butler did win the Diamond Head Classic by taking down Florida State and Washington State; the former is in the Sweet 16 and the latter in the NIT Final Four.
“We played Valparaiso early in the year and we lost and we gave up 60 points in a half,’’ Mack said. “That’s not us. We usually don’t give up 60 points in a game. We knew what we had to get back.’’
Howard added that he isn't shocked by Butler’s recent run of 12 straight wins.
“I knew what this team was capable of,’’ Howard said. “I knew the type of guys we had and [what we're capable of] if we buy into Coach’s game plan and are able to execute it.’’
Junior guard Ronald Nored said the Bulldogs found their sense of urgency after some ugly games in league play. He added that when the Bulldogs lost three in a row (to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State), “it set us up for what we’re doing now.’’
“People like to put down our conference, but it’s tough,’’ said senior guard Shawn Vanzant. “The coaches got on us to lock teams down.’’
And that’s exactly what occurred against Wisconsin. Stevens said he knew this week that the Bulldogs were playing at a different clip defensively.
“I was concerned about getting out to those shooters because once Taylor comes off those ball screens you have to pay attention to the guys out there,’’ Stevens said. “Once I saw the way we were rotating out there, I knew we’d be a tough out.’’
So at the end of the night, Butler is 40 minutes away from the Final Four. And Duke is done. Who had that?
“That’s this tournament,’’ Stevens said.
It is unforgiving for the losers. And for the team that can make plays, winning plays -- like Arizona did against Duke for most of its game, and the way Butler did to Wisconsin both early and late -- the tournament can be an incredible natural high.
“Teams go through lulls, and we were in a deep one,’’ Howard said. “Fortunately, this team came together, and no doubt we went through a stretch that looked like we could have had a mediocre season. But we didn’t. I’m very, very proud to be a part of this team.’’