Perhaps Butler doesn't have a magical run in its arsenal this March as it did a year ago. But Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens believes history shows this year's squad is capable of accomplishing a lot.
Butler begins its quest to reach its second consecutive NCAA Tournament national championship game Thursday against Old Dominion in Washington, D.C.
“I've told our guys that this Butler team has done what the best Butler teams have done,” Stevens said.
“Two years ago we lost in the first round to LSU, and we were really treading water at the end of the season… Last year we were really rolling going into the tournament and we won a few games.”
Yes, Butler won “a few games” a year ago. The Bulldogs shocked the college basketball world by reaching the championship game before losing to Duke 61-59 when two shots by Bulldogs star Gordon Hayward barely went awry.
Hayward took his talents to the Utah Jazz, and this team, which is riding a nine-game win streak, has had to learn to play differently without him and the graduated Willie Veasley.
“You derive confidence from being able to execute,” Stevens said.
“And you derive toughness from having some confidence. We had to become a better-executing team than last year's team, because we have less versatility.”
Butler is less versatile defensively this season due to the loss of Hayward. In him, the Bulldogs (23-9) had a 6-foot-9 athlete capable of switching with any teammate on screens, which proved invaluable at times. But this year's team has an asset that sets it apart this season.
“I think the game with Old Dominion will be really interesting,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell. “Butler plays with more size this year than they did in the past.”
Brownell faced Old Dominion (27-6) repeatedly when he coached 12 years at UNC-Wilmington. He then spent the past four seasons in the Horizon League with Butler coaching Wright State.
“These are two really good teams that have had a lot of success,” Brownell said. “Old Dominion is a long team that has great height at four positions. It'll mix up its defenses between zone and man-to-man. They'll rebound great too.”
Butler will counteract that size with starters Andrew Smith (6-foot-10) and Matt Howard (6-foot-8). In addition, 6-foot-8 forward Garrett Butcher has been playing well, particularly in last week's Horizon League Tournament championship game win at Milwaukee.
“I like this team,” Stevens said. “I'm looking forward to competing with them in the tournament.”