Butler coach Brad Stevens should have a good shot at getting his team back to the field of 68 next season. (AP …
The mid-major program from the tiny private school in Indianapolis twice defied the odds, twice wiggled its way to the national championship game and twice came oh-so-close to becoming the first non-power conference team in two decades to wear the crown.
The Bulldogs won't get a third try.
Knowing they had to win the Horizon League tournament heading in following a brutally up-and-down regular season, Butler looked strong in blowouts of Wright State and UW-Milwaukee. Not so much against host Valparaiso, as the Crusaders advanced to Tuesday's title game against Detroit with a 65-46 blowout of the Bulldogs.
Butler shot just 33.3 percent from the floor and was killed on the glass by Valpo, 37-20.
It was expected to be somewhat of a transition year for the Bulldogs after losing a pair of key pieces from those Final Four runs in big man Matt Howard and star guard Shelvin Mack.
Brad Stevens was simply forced to do more with less this season. Senior point guard Ronald Nored remained, but the Bulldogs were young and lacking quality depth in the front court.
Just how tough of a climb it would be just to get back into the tournament was apparent early on, as Butler was blown off of the floor by double-digits by Louisville, Indiana, Gonzaga and Xavier.
They went 11-7 in a somewhat weak Horizon League.
It was a fitting exit from the league tournament for a season that never really took off. The Bulldogs will likely end up in the NIT, but have a brighter future to look forward to.
To graduation, Butler only loses little-used reserve forward Garrett Butcher and starting point guard Ronald Nored. The loss of Nored might sting, given what he brought to the table as both a facilitator and leader, but the Bulldogs could have one of the best backcourts in the mid-major ranks next season.
The top returner will be super-athletic junior-to-be Chrishawn Hopkins, who bumped his scoring average from 1.5 to 8.4 points per game this season, but matured greatly as an offensive threat. His outside shot continues to develop.
He'll be joined by a pair of key newcomers in Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham.
The 6-foot-4 Dunham is one of the top senior prep prospects out of the state of Indiana.
Clarke, though only having one year of eligibility remaining, could greatly bump Butler's offensive production. In his final season at Arkansas, he was a 44 percent 3-point shooter, and will again be looked at as one of the nation's top outside gunners a year from now.
Will next year's Butler club, though, have the intangibles that made the program so successful in the postseason the last two years? That remains to be seen.
The Bulldogs will also likely be thin up front. Andrew Smith, who somewhat grew into the Matt Howard role this season, will be back as a senior.
But missing the tournament this year doesn't by any means signal that the program is shot, and it's impossible to dismiss what they accomplished in March each of the last two seasons.
Now the only question is who has the potential to be this year's Butler in the field of 68?