BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)—South Alabama wants what No. 11 Butler has—a reputation for success in March.
The only way to earn it begins Friday with a win in one of the more intriguing first-round NCAA tournament matchups.
“I think that’s something that every mid-major would want, (to be in) the top 10, top 15 in the country,” South Alabama guard Demetric Bennett said. “They work hard, they earned their credibility, and that’s something we’re trying to do now with the University of South Alabama.”
The Bulldogs (29-3) have advanced beyond the first round in their last three tournament trips, dispelling the myth that mid-majors are merely mulch for big conference schools with designs on a national title.
Last year, Butler upset Maryland in the first round before falling to eventual national champion Florida. In 2003, the Bulldogs advanced to the regional semifinals with wins against Mississippi State and Louisville but was beat by Oklahoma. And in 2001, Butler knocked off Wake Forest before losing to Arizona.
Butler might be even better this year under first-year coach Brad Stevens. The Bulldogs can set a school record for victories with a win over South Alabama in the East Regional.
Only Memphis (33), North Carolina (32), UCLA (31) and Kansas (31)—all top seeds in the tournament—have more wins than Butler, a 4,400-student college in Indianapolis.
South Alabama (26-6) has been busy building its own tradition in Mobile. This is the Jaguars’ third straight trip to the postseason, including an NCAA tournament bid in 2006 and an NIT appearance last year. Their nonconference schedule was designed to prepare them for the tournament and catch the attention of the selection committee.
“I think we’re establishing our own identity,” South Alabama’s Daon Merritt said. “We’re not trying to be like none of the other mid-majors, and we really don’t consider ourselves a mid-major. We have been in the postseason for the last three years. I think with the group of guys we have coming back next year that’s something that we will continue to have, that same kind of success.”
The Jaguars, who lost in the Sun Belt Conference tournament semifinals, beat tournament teams Mississippi State, San Diego and Western Kentucky. And South Alabama lost on the road by just three points each to Vanderbilt and Mississippi.
Though some questioned the Jaguars’ inclusion in the tournament, Butler coach Brad Stevens was not among them.
“There is no question in my mind that they’re one of the best teams in the country,” he said. “And I don’t know how seeding works, I don’t know how all that stuff happens, but they’re certainly deserving of being in the NCAA tournament.”
Every time the Jaguars suit up for a home game, they are reminded how success at the NCAA tournament can become a hallmark for a team, a school and thousands of fans. Before lineups are announced, South Alabama plays a clip of the 3-point shot that helped the Jaguars knock off Alabama in the first round of the 1989 tournament.
Coach Ronnie Arrow, then in his first stint in Mobile, jumps for joy in the clip. That leap has been replayed hundreds of times, and now South Alabama players hope they can inspire another jump for joy.
“It may not be quite as high,” Arrow said. “That was a couple years ago, but I just want to be given the opportunity to. That jump has gone a long way.”