SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—Danero Thomas realizes Murray State lost its chance to sneak up on anybody else in the NCAA tournament when his jumper beat the buzzer and Vanderbilt.
He certainly knows the 13th-seeded Racers won’t catch Butler by surprise on Saturday. After all, the fifth-seeded, nationally ranked Bulldogs got to the top of the mid-major heap by surprising one big-name school after another until they earned their own big name.
“We’ve been doing it all year,” said Thomas, whose 15-footer sent Murray State into the second round. “It’s just the next game, and we’ve been winning since the beginning, so we’ve just got to get in there and stay focused.”
Butler already is everything the Racers aspire to be: a small-school power with a rich basketball tradition and a history of outperforming schools with bigger budgets and more television visibility. Murray State has the hoops history—and a 31-win season after romping through the Ohio Valley Conference— but doesn’t have Butler’s national respect.
With a win at the Shark Tank and a trip to the West Regional semifinals, the Racers believe they could seize it.
“Our guys don’t think they’re mid-major,” Murray State coach Billy Kennedy said. “They all believe they’re high-major. They all think they should have gone to Kentucky or Louisville. … It’s not bad that they have that confidence. The hard thing is getting them to play together and be unselfish, and that’s what Butler has been able to do, and we’ve been able to do.”
Murray State has the full attention of Butler (29-4), which is going after its 22nd straight victory and second trip to the regional semifinals in four years. The Bulldogs, champions of the Horizon League, dispatched well-regarded UTEP in their opener with a 25-point performance by Shelvin Mack, who hit seven 3-pointers.
When Murray State talks about earning respect, Butler’s players nod their heads. The Bulldogs might have the trappings of elite mid-major success, but the Indiana and Purdue fans all around their Indianapolis campus are just one way they stay humble.
“For some people, I’m sure that used to be—or still is the case—with us,” Butler’s Matt Howard said. “Any time you look at a mid-major, the thing that happens is people look down on them a little bit, and don’t get as excited to play as they would against a Vanderbilt or against an SEC team. If you look at what they did, that’s good enough proof that they’re legit. If you’ve been in the situation and it’s reversed, hopefully you’re not going to let that happen to you.”
In more practical terms, Murray State’s balanced scoring concerns Butler coach Brad Stevens, who sees similarities between his own approach to offense and Kennedy’s fluid attack.
“We’ve played a lot of good teams this year, and if they’re not the best, they’re right there at the top,” Stevens said. “I just haven’t thought enough about it to rank everybody. … They’re not unfamiliar to coaches. They’re not on TV as much as some teams, and the irony is they’re better than a lot of the teams that are on TV all the time.”
Although the schools haven’t met since 1976, Murray State and Butler shared an unusual bond through much of the regular season. The Racers won 17 straight games in a streak that began in late December—the same time Butler began its current streak, the nation’s longest this season.
“A lot of people would tell me after our games, ‘Butler won,”’ Kennedy said. “So I thought, we’ve got to keep winning. Some of our guys followed it a little closer than others.”