OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—Brian Butch doesn’t have the national star power of Michael Beasley. But you can be sure that here in the heartland and back home in Wisconsin, where work ethic and perseverance are revered, the unassuming senior forward has his own legion of admirers.
Butch has dealt with illness in his family, criticism of his credentials and a devastating elbow injury in his five years with the Badgers. Now, on a team that mirrors his understated personality, Butch has led the Badgers into the second round of the NCAA tournament and a Saturday matchup with Beasley and Kansas State.
He’s savoring the experience after the dislocation of his right elbow late last season kept him out of the tournament. His absence, many believe, led to a premature end to Wisconsin’s season. The second-seeded Badgers were upset by UNLV in the second round.
Butch came back to lead the Badgers in scoring and rebounding, and he earned consensus all-Big Ten honors for a team that goes into Saturday’s game with wins in 24 of its last 26 games.
So what if “Polar Bear,” as he’s called in Madison, is overshadowed by Beasley? When Butch says he’s just happy to be here, you can’t help but believe he’s being genuine.
“You enjoy every minute of it, every minute out there playing,” Butch said Friday. “Not having the opportunity to do it last year was disappointing. We’re really concentrating on the next game, and we’re going to see how far we can take this.”
If the third-seeded Badgers (30-4) are to reach the Midwest Regional semifinals next week in Detroit, they’ll need to be every bit as good as their tops-in-the-nation defensive ranking against Beasley and the 11th-seeded Wildcats (21-11).
The 6-foot-11, 245-pound Butch figures to play a prominent role in coach Bo Ryan’s strategy to defend Beasley, who averages 26.3 points and 12.3 rebounds. Beasley overcame early foul trouble to score 23 in K-State’s 80-67 first-round victory over Southern California.
“I don’t think you’re going to stop him,” Butch said. “We’ve really got to concentrate on playing good, solid team defense. There’s not going to be one guy that’s going to stop him.”
Butch also proved to be a tough matchup for Wisconsin’s first-round opponent, Cal State Fullerton. He scored a team-leading 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds as the Badgers exploited their significant size advantage in a 71-56 victory.
Now Wisconsin, in the tournament for the 10th straight year, is in position to get back to the round of 16 for the first time in three years.
“As a young kid, you grow up dreaming of playing in the NCAA tournament,” Butch said. “To have an injury take that away from you, it’s frustrating. So as soon as the offseason came, I kept on trying to get better so when I was in the position this year, I’d be able to help this team. That’s what I did.”
The dislocated elbow was one in a line of hardships Butch has endured.
After a stellar prep career, Ryan decided he should sit out his first year because the Badgers were loaded in the frontcourt. Taking that redshirt year made Butch a target of critics who had put high expectations on him. He was the first McDonald’s All-American to take a redshirt for non-medical reasons, and the naysayers called him soft and slow.
That same year, his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Then, as a second-year freshman, he missed six games with mononucleosis and battled the accompanying fatigue much of the season. He averaged just under 4 points.
His numbers improved his sophomore season, which ended with a frustrating 19-point, first-round loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament.
Last year, his value on the court went beyond his averages of 8.8 points and 5.9 rebounds. The Badgers simply weren’t the same team after he hurt his elbow.
“Knowing what he’s capable of doing really helps our team offensively and defensively,” said junior forward Marcus Landry, “so I’m glad to have him back.”
Butch already has received his bachelor’s degree in life sciences communications, and the extra year has allowed him to work on a master’s in communications.
He said his time in Madison, despite everything, has been well spent.
“It helps when you’re in your senior year that your last hurrah is in the NCAA tournament,” Butch said. “You want to go out there and play the best basketball you can.”