Butler has played like two different teams this season, meaning it could either make a long run in the NCAA tournament or have a very brief stay.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs hope to display their early season form when they face a dangerous first-round opponent, No. 12 seed Old Dominion, on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
Butler was the talk of college basketball for the first few months of the season, winning 23 of its first 25 games and capturing the NIT Season Tip-off. Picked to finish sixth in the Horizon League, the Bulldogs stunned Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga—all NCAA tournament teams—in succession to win the tournament title at Madison Square Garden.
The Bulldogs (27-6) rose as high as No. 10 in the rankings as they put together winning streaks of 10 and nine games. Butler, however, stumbled down the stretch, losing four of its final eight games and ending up tied for the Horizon League regular season title with Wright State. The Bulldogs fell 60-55 to the Raiders in the conference championship game.
All-Horizon League guard A.J. Graves seemed to tire during the closing stretch. He shot 38 percent from 3-point range during Butler’s fast start, but slumped to 25 percent from 3-point range and just 31 percent overall in the final eight games.
Still, Graves led the team in scoring with 17.0 points per game and finished third nationally in free-throw shooting, making 95.8 percent of his attempts (137-for-143).
Butler has tied the school record for wins and has the highest seed in school history.
“We’re thrilled to be in, obviously,” Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. “You dream about being in and competing. … I appreciate the respect shown for what our team has been able to accomplish. A No. 5 seed shows a lot of respect, and we appreciate that.”
In addition to victories over Notre Dame and Indiana, the small school from Indianapolis also beat Purdue this season, giving the Bulldogs its first sweep of the state’s “Big Three” teams since 1948-49. Butler averaged only 9.4 turnovers, fewest in Division I, and was the only school to average less than 10 per game.
This is Butler’s first NCAA appearance since 2003, when it finished 27-6 and advanced to the round of 16 as a No. 12 seed.
“I was proud of what we had done, but I didn’t know what that would warrant,” Lickliter said of his team’s place in the Midwest Regional. “I didn’t let myself even really think about it. I wanted to leave that to the committee. So I wasn’t anticipating anything, and when it came up, I thought that showed respect for our team.”
If Butler doesn’t play the way it did in starting 23-2, it may have a tough time advancing past Old Dominion, which earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986.
The Monarchs (24-8) were the second team from the Colonial Athletic Association to make the NCAAs after conference champ Virginia Commonwealth and are hoping to pull off a run similar to the one George Mason made last season, when the Patriots advanced to the Final Four after becoming the first CAA team selected for an at-large bid since Old Dominion.
The Monarchs won at Georgetown in November and finished second in the CAA, winning 12 straight before George Mason knocked off Old Dominion in the conference tournament.
“There was a lot of emotion and anxiety for us all week, but when we saw our name early, that was a big relief,” Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said of being selected for the NCAAs. “I felt all along we deserved to get in. This really caps off a great year for our seniors.”
The Monarchs advanced to the NIT semifinals last season after losing to Michigan State in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament, also as a No. 12 seed. Old Dominion led that game at halftime before its defense collapsed under the Spartans’ pressure, but the Monarchs do have a history of upsets, having beaten Villanova in triple overtime as a No. 14 seed in 1995.
Old Dominion is led by seniors Valdas Vasylius and Drew Williamson. After spending the summer playing for the Lithuanian national team, Vasylius led the Monarchs with 15.8 points a game and was named first-team All-CAA.
Williamson has a career 2.82 assist-to-turnover ratio, the highest in conference history.
Old Dominion’s current seniors are the school’s winningest class with 93 victories, and the Monarchs have three straight 20-win seasons for just the second time in school history.
Butler won the only previous meeting between the schools, 75-62 in the second round of the 1999 NIT.
Thursday’s winner faces fourth-seeded Maryland or No. 13 Davidson in the second round.
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