WASHINGTON (AP)—As the top seed in the Southeast Regional, Pittsburgh is an obvious favorite over Butler.
The Panthers are not, however, a fan favorite. That distinction goes to Butler, a mid-major darling that has built a reputation in the NCAA tournament as a can-do underdog.
After working their way into the national championship game last year, the Bulldogs showed Thursday they haven’t lost the magic touch. Despite losing a six-point lead to Old Dominion in the final two minutes, Butler pulled out a victory with a putback at the buzzer.
Clearly, the Bulldogs are no ordinary No. 8 seed.
“When you look at Butler, you definitely have to respect them a little bit more,” Pittsburgh forward Gilbert Brown said Friday.
The big, bad Panthers know who the nation will be rooting for when the teams meet Saturday night.
“Knowing the history of their school, they’re basically America’s team now,” Pitt guard Brad Wanamaker said.
The Panthers figure almost everyone will be pulling for the Bulldogs, except perhaps for those fans who have Pittsburgh advancing to the Final Four in their bracket.
“I think everyone wants to the see the upset,” Panthers center Gary McGhee said. “We just want to come out there and play our game. We know what we have to do.”
Pittsburgh (28-5) has more height than Butler (24-9). But Old Dominion was taller, too, and the Bulldogs still managed to become only the second team this season to outrebound the Monarchs.
Brown was so impressed with Butler’s performance that he deemed it worthy of a conference that receives far more exposure than the Horizon League.
“They were really battling out there on the boards,” Brown said. “It was almost like a traditional Big East game they were playing.”
Butler doesn’t necessarily believe it has a mystical aura. But the Bulldogs have benefited from last season’s run to the title game.
“The record and the games themselves don’t have any bearing on (Saturday),” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “But the experience, hopefully you can use it in a positive way.”
Perhaps, but Stevens’ players aren’t the type to harp on the past. Matt Howard, who scored the game-winning basket Thursday, was asked if he still felt exhilarated about his accomplishment when he woke up Friday morning.
“It’s great to still be going,” Howard replied, “but my mindset this morning when I woke up was thinking about breakfast. That was it. I moved on. Obviously that’s something maybe after the season that you’ll remember, but it’s Pittsburgh now.”
Butler isn’t afraid of Pittsburgh. Given the Bulldogs’ reputation, should Pittsburgh be afraid of Butler?
“I wouldn’t say that. Pittsburgh’s a great team. We’re also a great team,” Butler guard Shelvin Mack said. “It’s the NCAA tournament. Everyone you play is going to be pretty good, so I think what we did last year really doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t say they should fear us, but it’s going to be a good game.”
Pittsburgh, the Big East regular season champions, beat No. 16 seed UNC Asheville 74-51 on Thursday. With a win over Butler, coach Jamie Dixon’s team will reach the round of 16 for the sixth time in 10 years.
Knowing that everyone loves Butler, the beloved little underdog, the Panthers have assumed an us-against-the-world attitude.
“It may actually benefit us. We thrive being in an underdog role, when people don’t expect us to succeed,” Brown said. “It plays in our heads. We want to go out there and prove everybody wrong.”
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