SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—Tony Barbee has been steeped in the Butler Way since he was a kid growing up in Indianapolis, watching and playing games at Hinkle Fieldhouse while absorbing that unique basketball culture.
Now the UTEP coach must disperse that mystique for his Miners to get the respect he thinks they’ve been denied.
Two big fish from small hoops ponds have been thrown together in the Shark Tank, where the fifth-seeded Bulldogs (28-4) will go for their 21st consecutive win when they face Barbee’s 12th-seeded Miners (26-6), whose own 16-game winning streak ended last weekend.
“I’ve always had a great affinity for that program,” Barbee said. “My parents used to take me to the games a lot. They recruited me out of high school. All the recent success they’ve had, it’s been fun to watch. … It’s neat to be playing against them, but it doesn’t affect my guys. They don’t get into all of that. Maybe I should show them ‘Hoosiers.”’
Butler’s national profile has grown steadily through several years of national rankings and consistent winning, and the Bulldogs are getting more respect than ever this season after compiling the nation’s longest winning streak during a perfect run through the Horizon League.
Their No. 5 seed matches the highest in school history.
“We’ve grown to the point where most of the games we play, especially in league play, you’ve got a target on your back every game,” said Howard, the Bulldogs’ third-leading scorer. “It’s hard to fly under the radar when your name is in the Top 25.”
Yet the Bulldogs weren’t exactly rewarded with a simple first-round game. Butler forward Matt Howard realizes much of the country has penciled in the Bulldogs as a potential upset victim, given UTEP’s impressive front line and ample motivation from a surprisingly low seeding in the West Regional.
Both teams dominated their respective leagues, with Butler winning every game since Christmas. UTEP was nearly as impressive, winning 16 straight between two losses to Houston, most recently in last week’s Conference USA tournament title game.
The Miners boast a powerful starting lineup led by C-USA player of the year Randy Culpepper and bulky former Louisville star Derrick Caracter, who led them to their first NCAA tournament since 2005 and are in search of UTEP’s first tourney victory since 1992.
Yet they came uncomfortably close to missing the whole tournament, turning up as one of the lowest-seeded at-large teams in the field.
“I was a little shocked to see the seed that we got,” Barbee said. “There was no talk of us any lower than the 7, 8, 9 range. There was no talk over the last two weeks of us being on the bubble … (but) that meant we were one of the last few teams in, if not the last team in. I thought we had a season that deserves a little more respect, but we’re going to make the most of it.”
Butler coach Brad Stevens also is certain his team won’t lack for motivation against the Miners. His Bulldogs have been where UTEP is now—fighting for national attention and worrying about slights.
“You’re watching UTEP and saying, ‘Wow,”’ Stevens said. “You’re blown away with how good they are.”
These Bulldogs also have more maturity than previous Butler teams under the 33-year-old Stevens and his predecessor, recently fired Iowa coach Todd Lickliter. All five starters are back from last season’s team that lost to LSU in the first round of the NCAAs.
“Will our experience help us? I hope it will,” Stevens said. “Our inexperience hurt us for two minutes last year, and we were down 9-2. It may have ended up hurting us in the long run of that game, but for the rest of the game, we played well.”