NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Butler’s Brad Stevens likes being the young coach from the small school whose second straight run deep into the NCAA tournament is capturing the imagination of the basketball-loving public.
More important to him, though, is how his players see it.
“The cool part is—our guys—it’s not above their imagination,” Stevens said of upsetting one higher seed after another. “It’s just what they think that we have to do next.”
After knocking off a pair of major conference powers in their last two tournament games—top-seeded Pittsburgh of the Big East and fourth-seeded Wisconsin of the Big Ten—Butler (26-9) will try to send home second-seed Florida (29-7) of the Southeastern Conference in Saturday evening’s Southeast regional final.
If Butler succeeds, the Bulldogs will be back in the Final Four for a second-straight season.
Gators coach Billy Donovan made it clear he’s the last person who needs to be convinced of what a threat the feisty Bulldogs are to the big-money, big-school programs that entered the tournament as higher seeds and with higher expectations.
And Donovan’s reasons have to do with more than just what Butler has done.
“You’re starting to see the teams that maybe are non-BCS teams moving on and advancing in this tournament,” Donovan said, referring to George Mason’s Final Four appearance in 2006 and Butler’s national title game appearance last year, not to mention the exploits of VCU and Richmond, who where were playing in regional semifinal games on Friday night.
“Butler has proven that they’re as good as any program in the country,” Donovan said. “You don’t get to a national championship game or the amount of sweet 16s they’ve gotten to by just being a Cinderella story. That doesn’t happen year after year.”
One subplot to this matchup is Florida’s history of ending Butler’s season. None of the current regulars on either team were a part of that, but most remember when the Gators ousted Butler in the 2007 regional semifinals and most have been told about the Gators’ dramatic 69-68 overtime victory over Butler in the first round in 2000—a game that ended on Mike Miller’s running jumper as time expired.
“Everyone in the program is pretty aware of what’s taken place,” said Butler guard Ronald Nored, adding that he’d received encouraging text messages from members of both the 2000 and 2007 Butler teams. “We want to just do what we can for those guys and hopefully they appreciate our effort.”
The Gators went on to the Final Four after the 2000 meeting and Donovan became known as one of the best young coaches in the game. Now the bespectacled, 34-year-old Stevens—who looks so young that he was asked a couple season ago whether he was a player—holds that title.
Earlier this season, it was Donovan whom Stevens called for advice when Butler was laboring through a season-long three-game losing streak. They had met at coaching retreats in the past and Stevens figured Donovan could teach him something about dealing with some of the challenges of playing one season after a national title appearance—when every opponent is a little extra revved up.
Not long after, the brief skid ended and a winning streak that has now reached 12 games began.
“Brad has been a terrific coach, you know, before he made it to the national championship game a year ago,” Donovan said. “He’s done a terrific job, and his staff has done a terrific job, recruiting some very, very good players, and maybe some players that evolved to be special.”
Donovan hasn’t done too badly on that front, either, and now has his best squad since his back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
Florida has size, athleticism and balance. Four starters—guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, along with center 6-foot-10 center Vernon Macklin and 6-9 forward Chanlder Parsons—have averaged double figures in scoring. Alex Tyus, the one who hasn’t, was the best player in Florida’s regional semifinal victory over BYU on Thursday night, with 19 points and 17 rebounds.
When Butler takes the court against a team like Florida, it looks at first glance like a mismatch. The Bulldogs don’t appear to have the same size or the level of athlete. Even leading scorer and tournament hero Matt Howard conceded he isn’t all that graceful and probably looks a little goofy with his typically messed up hair that he often won’t bother to fix after rolling out of bed.
Howard added that Butler won’t pass what he referred to as “the look test.”
“And that’s fine, because even though you don’t have the size or the guys that just straight up jump out of the gym, the game becomes a game of execution,” Howard said. “So if you’re able to execute sometimes you can make plays even on a more athletic or a lot stronger player.”
Butler’s ability to do just that repeatedly, and often in dramatic fashion, is what has made them the small school program one that many seem inclined to root for during tournament time.
It remains to be seen if the Gators, despite the fact that they’re in SEC country, will wind up playing before a largely hostile crowd in New Orleans.
“I don’t think we’re labeled as the bad guys,” Macklin said. “We’ve just got to go out there and worry about us and execute our plays.”