BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—Maybe it’s time to stop calling Butler a mid-major. Maryland coach Gary Williams already has.
“I don’t see how you can be in the Top 25 all year and be called a mid-major,” Williams said Friday as he contemplated facing the Bulldogs in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “To me that’s impossible. You’re a major. They’re all labels to me. The game’s changed. If you’re good, you’re good.”
And Butler (28-6) is good, has been since winning the NIT Season Tip-Off in November, posting victories over four teams selected for the NCAA tournament (Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga).
Despite a late-season swoon—Butler lost four of its final eight games— the Bulldogs, seeded fifth in the Midwest, figure to pose some problems for fourth-seeded Maryland (25-8) with their adept ball-handling and long-range prowess.
Butler made five straight 3-pointers midway through the second half to break open a tense first-round game and beat Old Dominion 57-46.
The Bulldogs were content to play a slow-paced game against the Monarchs, and it served them well. But the Terps, who beat Davidson 82-70 in the first round, like to press and run, and they have no intention of slowing the pace.
“We don’t want to change anything,” said guard Mike Jones, who led the Terps with 17 points against Davidson. “We want to keep things fast-paced. If anything, we want to try to speed them up.”
The Bulldogs, who rely on star junior guards A.J. Graves and Mike Green, might not be averse to that, though.
“Butler’s deceiving,” Williams said. “They are paced in the half-court, but in transition I don’t think they’re a patient team. They get to the three-point line, and if they’re open, especially the guards, they’re going to shoot the ball in transition.
“I don’t want my guys to think we’re playing against a team that really slows it up,” Williams said. “I’ve seen Butler score a lot of points. We know that they can go. When you have two guards like Graves and Green, you’re a quick team if you want to be.”
The 6-foot-1 Graves is Butler’s leading scorer—he had 18 points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals and one turnover against Old Dominion—so that means Maryland likely will assign D.J. Strawberry to guard him.
Strawberry, whose father, Darryl, was an All-Star outfielder for the New York Mets and a very good high school basketball player, has his father’s build — 6-foot-5 and lanky—and is capable of swinging over to forward.
“I have played the other team’s best player, and it just comes down to who has the most heart,” Strawberry said. “And I think I have a lot of heart and a lot of pride in my defense. Defense is going to win us the game.”
Strawberry’s stifling defense against Davidson’s Stephen Curry made a big difference when the game was on the line. Curry scored 30 points, but he tired at the end, missing five of his final six attempts before fouling out in the final minute. The Wildcats had no one else to pick up the slack, managing just one field goal—Curry’s transition layup—in the final 5:51.
“They’re a very athletic team and very aggressive as far as pressuring the ball and pressuring you in the backcourt,” Butler forward Brian Ligon said. “The main thing for us is going to be maintaining our poise and composure, and stick to our strengths.”
Both teams start three seniors, and playing on is of paramount importance.
“This is the most important game of our college careers,” Strawberry said. “We have the chance right in front of us. I expect everybody to go out and leave everything out on the floor and try to advance. This means everything.”
Butler is tournament-tested with six NCAA appearances in 11 years, but the Bulldogs haven’t been in the NCAA tournament since they made it to the round of 16 four years ago. Maryland represents their first big-conference opponent since they beat Purdue in mid-December.
“It’s a big opponent, but at Butler everyone’s a big opponent,” Green said. “We just try to play every game the same way and this is no different. We did some good things with those black uniforms early on. We just want to get back to playing well in those black uniforms.”