SALT LAKE CITY – Butler guard Shelvin Mack’s zeal for the big stage arose from his emergence on the world stage.
Mack joined Butler teammate Gordon Hayward on the U.S. squad that won the gold medal last summer at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. Mack made enough of an impression to be selected as team captain.
“I got a lot of confidence from that, knowing I can play on that stage with those types of players,” Mack said.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore brought that attitude back to Butler.
Mack has consistently delivered big performances in big games while helping Butler reach the Elite Eight for the first time. The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (31-4) will need that trend to continue Saturday when they face No. 2 seed Kansas State (29-7) in the West Regional final at the EnergySolutions Arena.
A victory would send the Bulldogs to the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, which is about five miles away from Butler’s Indianapolis campus.
“We dreamed of it,” Mack said.
Butler probably won’t realize that dream unless Mack delivers a big game. Mack and teammate Ronald Nored will match up against a Kansas State guard duo that is playing as well as any backcourt in the nation.
Jacob Pullen has averaged 25.7 points per game and Denis Clemente has scored 20.3 points per game in the NCAA tournament. Butler hasn’t allowed any of its three NCAA tournament foes to crack the 60-point mark, but this could represent the Bulldogs’ toughest test yet.
“They have huge hearts,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said of Kansas State’s guards. “They’re incredibly fast. Right now, Clemente scares you as much as any player you’re going to play against, as does Pullen. Pullen might be having the best tournament of anybody in the country right now.”
The good news for Butler is that Mack lives for these moments.
Mack averaged 18.7 points per game in the 76 Classic, an early-season tournament that included matchups with Minnesota, UCLA and Clemson. He scored 23 points and significantly outplayed NCAA assists leader Ronald Moore in a 70-53 victory over Siena.
He opened the NCAA tournament by shooting 7-of-9 from 3-point range and scoring 25 points as Butler rallied from a six-point halftime deficit in a 77-59 triumph over UTEP. Mack also tallied 14 first-half points Thursday in a 63-59 upset of Syracuse before being held scoreless in the second half.
Butler owns a 17-1 record when Mack leads the team in scoring. Mack has shot 38.2 percent (65-of-170) from 3-point range this season while averaging 14.1 points per game.
“He just gets better because he lives in the gym,” Stevens said. “When we leave the court, he stays extra. He’s the guy that stays the longest. He’s the guy that’s in the gym the most. Because of that, I think he’s earned the right to make shots.”
Mack wasn’t making many of them Thursday. He shot 5-of-19 overall and went 1-of-10 from 3-point range against Syracuse. Yet he maintained the same fearless approach throughout the game.
No matter how many shots he misses, Mack always believes he will make the next one.
So do his teammates.
“If Shelvin shoots it, I think it’s going in,” Nored said. “If Shelvin shoots it, I don’t think anyone’s arguing with him. He can flat-out let it go.”
Mack has a knack for earning the respect of his teammates.
That’s what he has done at Butler.
And that’s what he did in New Zealand.
The U.S. team at the Under-19 World Championships was coached by Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon, whose intense approach represents a contrast from the calm attitude Stevens brings to the bench. Mack adapted to the change in style.
“We obviously had hard practices, and there were times that Shelvin would step up and be kind of the vocal leader,” said Hayward. “I think that was the biggest thing. He was the most vocal on the team. The coaches saw that and saw his effort.”
Mack and Hayward helped the U.S. win the Under-19 World Championships for the first time since 1991, so they know a thing or two about leading a team on a surprising tournament run.
If Mack helps Butler pull off an even bigger surprise, the news certainly would cause quite a bit of attention in his hometown, not that it needs any more reason to get excited about this tournament.
Mack grew up in Lexington, Ky., the home of Kentucky’s campus. Amid the Big Blue Madness that has engulfed Lexington during Kentucky’s re-emergence as a national title contender, at least a few households are loyal to Butler’s darker shade of blue.
“I’ve got a lot of supporters back home in Lexington,” said Mack, who didn’t receive much attention from Kentucky until after he already had committed to Butler. “They’d love to see us and UK in the championship, but you’ve got to take it one day at a time.”