LEXINGTON, Ky. – You're up, Marquette.
You're the latest team tasked with trying to eliminate the Butler Bulldogs. You're favored by just about every metric, but Butler has a way of defying those expectations. Marquette might as well be trying to kill Bruce Willis in an action movie.
To be sure, this is a different Butler team from the one that made back-to-back national championship games in 2010 and '11. As coach Brad Stevens pointed out Thursday, only two players in his top seven were on those teams. There is no Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard or Shelvin Mack on this roster.
But there is Stevens himself, and from him flows the Butler identity. He is the biggest reason the Bulldogs have won 11 of their last 13 NCAA tourney games, despite being seeded to go 3-2. He is the biggest reason Butler has morphed from a cute little Horizon League power to a viable Atlantic-10 contender to, next year, a member of the repurposed Big East.
Stevens presents himself in such a calm, analytical manner that it tends to obscure his competitive nature. Beneath the classy exterior is the little kid who once cheered Bobby Knight for throwing the chair across the floor against Purdue. That competitiveness is expressed in his team's inherent toughness.
That's an overused word in college basketball, and probably bestowed on too many teams and players that don't deserve it. Butler deserves it.
The most recent manifestation of that toughness was Thursday afternoon. After establishing a seemingly comfortable 11-point lead early in the second half against Bucknell, the Bulldogs were smacked with a 19-2 run. Suddenly, a good and confident Bucknell team had snatched away the momentum and appeared to be snatching away the game.
Down six, Butler responded with a 22-5 run of its own to forcefully put away the game.
"The similarity [to the 2010 and '11 teams] is that they're Butler," Stevens said. "The similarity is that they can go on a minus-16 run and turn around and win the game. They have some mettle, and they have some intestinal fortitude that is built up over time. … It truly is a Butler team, which I feel really good about."
Being Butler means an absolute commitment to defense – not just the zeal it takes to play it, but the mental investment to learn a complicated system of defending.
"You really don't quite understand the Butler defensive system until you're about a junior," Bulldogs center Andrew Smith said.
Smith is now a senior, so he's got it figured out. That showed Thursday against Bucknell, when he was the human wall in the paint preventing Bison star Mike Muscala from scoring. Muscala, a 6-11 senior who is considered a legit NBA prospect, was four-of-17 from the field – his worst shooting performance in more than 13 months.
Stevens' small moment of strategic genius in that game was to have forward Khyle Marshall actually assigned to guard Muscala, in order to wind up with Smith guarding Muscala.
"They run a lot of action where we're going to hedge a ball screen and Andrew is going to return to Khyle's guy and Khyle is going to return to Andrew's guy," Stevens said. "So it was almost like we pre-switched to guard the switch later on. … It's a lot less complicated than it sounds, but we wanted Andrew rotating to Muscala, we wanted Andrew in the middle of the paint."
It sounds pretty complicated. You have to be diligent enough to inhale a scouting report when you play for Stevens, and then you have to be smart enough to execute it.
But at the very least, the Butler players know they'll be armed with full knowledge of their opponent by Stevens and his staff. Bucknell was a perfect example. The Bison went to a triangle-and-two against the Bulldogs in the second half, and while it flummoxed Butler for a while it did not come as a surprise.
"I saw them," Stevens said. "We had it on our film."
Bucknell had only played the exotic defense about 30 possessions all season. But Butler was ready for it. Give Stevens five days to prepare and he will know the maiden name of the opposing assistant coaches' wives. And he does not waste time. Smith said that after watching the Selection Sunday bracket unveiling, the Bulldogs did about 15 minutes of interviews and then were greeted by an immediate scouting report.
"We walked into our locker room for our team meeting and Coach came out and said, 'Well, I've already watched 20 clips of Bucknell's defense,' " Smith said. "We all just started laughing. I don't even know where he gets that information so quickly."
Stevens is perpetually starved for information on opponents, which is why he has made a graduate manager named Drew Cannon his numbers guru. Cannon, a non-player who has an undergraduate degree from Duke, is heavy into analytics – the new-age numbers that have transformed the way people view basketball statistics.
Cannon is particularly adept at analyzing lineups, and it was with his blessing that Stevens inserted point guard Alex Barlow into the starting lineup Thursday after coming off the bench the previous five games. Barlow responded with perhaps his best game of the season: 11 points, five rebounds, four steals. It certainly was his biggest moment since improbably hitting the shot that beat Indiana in December.
"Barlow was dialed into a different level than pretty much any other guy we had on our team the last couple of days with his study, getting into the film room," Stevens said admiringly.
The fact that Barlow is a key member of the Butler rotation tells you this isn't a team flush with lavish talent. He's a walk-on who was probably a better baseball player in high school. With guys like that in the top seven, this isn't the kind of team that should be expected to show up in another Final Four.
But somebody has to beat Butler, and that's not been as easy as it sounds at this time of year.
Marquette, you've got next.
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