NIT champ Butler's a far cry from your basic Cinderella

NEW YORK -- Butler's dancing. And it's only November.

The Bulldogs, having just completed its tear through an NIT Season Tip-Off field that included North Carolina, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Indiana and Notre Dame (of which only UNC did not fall to Butler), converged at mid-court. And they danced in a huddle, bouncing up and down, with their arms and fingers raised, soaking in the celebratory moment in the center of a big stage.

"Now y'all know who Butler is!" yelled forward Brian Ligon's mother, Mendee, from behind the bench as the players danced. "I get aggravated because nobody gives them credit," she said later as the team accepted trophies. "They call them Cinderella, and they're no Cinderella. They're a good team with a good coach."

Butler, a team whose biggest player is 6-foot-7 Ligon, beat No. 23 Gonzaga, whose leading scorer is 6-11 Josh Heytvelt, by a 79-71 margin that's not indicative of Butler's dominance Friday night in the championship game at Madison Square Garden. And they're from Indianapolis, by the way.

"Our guys are outsized height-wise and by weight," said coach Todd Lickliter, "but there's other ways to measure individuals."

Indeed there are. Take 6-1 guard and tournament MVP A.J. Graves for example. The dark-haired dynamo scored 26 points, tallying 89 in four tourney games. Graves is the third of his siblings, who come from a tiny Indiana town of 300 named Switz City, to play at Butler. Two of his older brothers Matthew and Andrew are former captains and played there from 1994-2000, when Butler made three NCAA Tournament appearances. Matthew is an assistant coach there now and was working with the team during 2003's Sweet 16 appearance.

Matthew's grin reached his ear lobes as he watched his little brother accept the MVP trophy. "It's a pleasure because there's such an age difference I didn't get to see him play a lot growing up," said Matthew. "I've gotten a chance to know him on the court and off. It's something I cherish."

Graves hit the weight room hard during the off-season, bulking up to a grizzly 160 pounds and increasing his bench press by 50 pounds to 240. It beats snaking drains for the family business, Graves Plumbing, back in Switz City. Instead, he and his teammates were busy draining threes and sinking yet another big-time opponent. Butler heavily favored the outside against the bigger Gonzaga, hitting 12 of 36 threes (9 of 22 in the first half).

Mark the boys from Butler down as a bracket buster come March, whether they capture the Horizon Leauge's automatic bid or not. Butler is taking a No. 1 RPI ranking back to Hinkle Fieldhouse. Though Lickliter, Graves and wingman Julian Betko all downplayed their accomplishments at the post-game news conference. Lickliter presented a very calm front with measured words and a hidden enthusiasm. Graves looked the part of having just slain another giant, red around the eyes on a flush face with soaked strands of his bangs stuck to his forehead.

"It's nice to get honored. It's nice to get some press," Graves said matter-of-factly and still breathing heavily. "But other than that, we're going to play tomorrow, we're going to play the next day and we're just going to keep on moving and see where we go."

In the matchup many expected in the championship, No. 2 North Carolina (4-1) reached triple-digits in the consolation game against No. 21 Tennessee (4-2) for the third time in five games to bounce back from Wednesday's loss to Gonzaga. "Not as bad a taste in my mouth as the last time I was here," said UNC coach Roy Williams. "It's a work in progress, but I do think we have some great material to work with."

Tyler Hansbrough bounced back himself by getting back into double-digits in the 101-87 win. The sophomore scored 27 points after being held to fewer than 10 points for the second time in his career. The Tar Heels next face Ohio State on Wednesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Butler's Julian Betko (13 points) joined Graves, along with UNC's Hansbrough and Brandan Wright and Gonzaga's Heytvelt, who scored 16 points despite battling early foul trouble, on the all-tournament team.

But it was certainly Butler's time for the spotlight on Thanksgiving week. After beating a physical Tennessee team Wednesday, Butler led Gonzaga by 17 three times in the first half and as many as 18 in the game.

"They outplayed us in any facet and every facet that I can possibly think of involved in basketball," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team was led by Derek Raivio's 20 points, "and definitely deserved to win that game."

They deserve the attention coming their way too.

Mendee Ligon and her husband Reggie took pictures and hollered and smiled as their son helped cut down the Garden nets. Brian Ligon is Butler's biggest player and his family was having big fun at this big moment. And they want you to know something. Butler is coming to an arena near you. Look for them this March.

Said Reggie, "Make sure you tell the world know who Butler is."

Mike Ogle is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at oglemike@gmail.com.