Within team concept, Butler's Graves has green light
Butler emphasizes team basketball, but even Todd Lickliter wants star A.J. Graves to shoot more sometimes.
CHICAGO -- When Bobby Plump watches Butler University's basketball team, he sees many of the qualities of the most famous team in Indiana history.
Like tiny Milan High School, which won the 751-team Indiana high school basketball tournament in 1954, the improbable David versus Goliath story that later inspired the blockbuster movie "Hoosiers," the Bulldogs embrace the game's fundamentals and teamwork, which are as rare in college basketball today as a set shooter.
"There is a similarity," said Plump, the real-life Jimmy Chitwood, who hit the game-winning shot to beat Muncie Central in the 1954 Indiana high school state finals and was later a four-year letterman at Butler. "They are so well-coached and have the fundamentals down more than any team I've seen. They truly win as a team. It's a pleasure to watch them play, it really is. It's kind of nice to see the fundamentals and team aspects again."
The No. 11 Bulldogs, who have won 19 of their first 21 games, already have defied the odds this season by winning the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York in November. Along the way, Butler beat larger schools such as Notre Dame, Indiana and Tennessee, before beating Gonzaga 79-71 in the finals at Madison Square Garden.
Since then, the Bulldogs have lost only twice -- at state rival Indiana State and at Illinois-Chicago -- before winning their last five games to climb to their highest national ranking in more than 50 years. Butler can avenge one of its two losses when it plays host to Illinois-Chicago at legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse Monday night.
"They're a great basketball team," Plump said. "Do they have the athleticism of other teams? No, they don't. But they make the best of what they have and play to their strengths and play to the weaknesses of the other team. They just play basic basketball."
Unlike Milan High School, Plump said Butler University isn't an underdog. The private school of 4,200 students near downtown Indianapolis has won at least 20 games and played in the postseason in eight of the previous 10 seasons.
The Bulldogs have appeared in the NCAA Tournament five times during the last decade, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2003 after beating No. 5 seed Mississippi State and No. 4 seed Louisville and upsetting No. 7 seed Wake Forest in the first round in 2001.
"I don't think it's any underdog role at all," Plump said. "They've averaged 20 victories a season for the last 10 years. If their name had been Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina, they would have been ranked in the top five the last four years."
The Bulldogs still are growing accustomed to being heavy favorites. While playing in smaller gyms at schools at Valparaiso, Indiana State and Detroit, Butler often gets an opponent's best effort. Last Thursday night, Butler played in front of a sold-out crowd at Loyola's Gentile Center in Chicago. The gymnasium is in the middle of campus and has rows of wooden bleachers and championship banners hanging on its walls. Students participated in an ice-cream eating contest at halftime.
It was another old-school setting for a throwback team. And yet another tough road game for the team that gets every opponent's best shot, regardless of how small that foe might be.
"I think that's the way it is when you have success," Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. "I think it's unique. They talk about how you're ranked and you're going into a place where not a lot of ranked teams go into. It's a lot of pressure, but I wouldn't want it any other way."
The Bulldogs needed overtime to defeat the Ramblers, the preseason favorites in the Horizon League. Nationally, critics might have scoffed at Butler's inability to blow out an opponent such as Loyola. Lickliter, though, knows his team was fortunate to escape with a victory in such a hostile environment after star guard A.J. Graves scored 10 points in overtime to lead the Bulldogs to a 70-66 win.
The Bulldogs don't have a player taller than 6-foot-7 (Avery Jukes, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Alabama, is redshirting this season). Seven of Butler's 12 players are homegrown products from Indiana high schools, many of whom weren't tall enough or perceived to be good enough to play at larger Division I schools.
Graves, the team's leading scorer with 18.8 points per game, is from the tiny town of Switz City in southwest Indiana, about 84 miles from the state capital of Indianapolis. Graves was an all-state selection as a senior at White River Valley High and finished two votes behind Indiana University recruit A.J. Ratliff in voting for the state's Mr. Basketball award in 2004.
In his last game at White River Valley's gym, Graves scored 37 points -- one point more than opponent Tecumseh High's team total -- in a 51-36 victory in a Class A state regional final. Graves had scored 17 points in a semifinal game earlier that afternoon.
But at 6-foot-1 and barely weighing 160 pounds, Graves was ignored by most of the state's bigger schools. He orally committed to play basketball at Butler after his sophomore season at White River Valley High School, following older brothers Andrew and Matthew there. Graves also was recruited by Indiana State, Xavier, Bradley and Southern Illinois. Former Purdue coach Gene Keady went to Switz City to watch Graves play in a game, but Graves never received a scholarship offer from the Boilermakers.
"Nobody can find Switz City on a map," said Matthew Graves, who as a player in 1996-97 helped lead Butler to its first NCAA Tournament in 35 years and has worked as one of the team's assistant coaches the last four seasons.
There isn't much in Switz City to see. The town has about 300 residents and 90 families. Graves' parents and an older brother, Mark, operate a plumbing business. There's also a post office, tire store, liquor store and gun store in Switz City. The town's only grocery store and gas station closed at the beginning of the year.
"We don't even have a stop light," said Melanie Graves, the player's mother. "It's a blinking light."
So Graves had little else to do than play basketball while growing up. His father, Rick Graves, coached each of his son's middle school and summer AAU teams. Matthew Graves said his youngest brother realized his physical limitations at an early age.
"He couldn't dunk, so all he ever did was practice shooting," Matthew Graves said. "Everybody else practices dunking."
Graves also realized his own limitations at an early age.
"That's the main reason I committed to Butler so early," Graves said. "I didn't think I could have played anywhere else but Butler. Coming from a small school and with the slight stature I have, I knew I had to go to Butler. That's where I had to be. Major teams play more physical and they're faster. I don't have those skills. God didn't bless me with those skills. I had to go some place where the coaches and system could make me a better player."
Graves made himself a better player, too. Growing up, Graves shot at least 100 foul shots each day, and now that practice is paying off. Going into last week's game against Loyola, Graves had made 63 consecutive foul shots, then the longest active streak in Division I and the fourth-longest streak in Division I history.
But Graves missed his first free throw attempt against Loyola and missed again in the second half. He didn't attempt a foul shot in Saturday's 68-58 win at Detroit, scoring all of his 15 points on 3-pointers.
Graves still leads the country in foul shooting, making 98 of 101 attempts (97 percent) this season. The Division I single-season record for free throw percentage of 97.5 percent was set by Missouri State's Blake Ahearn in 2004.
"All I ever did growing up was shooting," Graves said. "Shooting jump shots. Shooting foul shots."
But near perfection seems to command perfection. After making three 3-pointers in overtime to help the Bulldogs beat Loyola, Graves was first asked about the missed foul shots during the post-game news conference.
"If that's the worst thing that happens to me, I'll take it," Graves said. "I'm more concerned about the win. If those two free throws had cost us the game, I'd be more concerned about it."
Lickliter's biggest dilemma is getting Graves to shoot more. He has taken 268 shots, only 70 more than both guard Mike Green, a transfer from Towson, and senior forward Brandon Crone. Against Loyola, Graves scored 10 points in the first half on 3-for-6 shooting, but made only one basket and scored four points in the second half.
"It kind of goes back to his personality," Matthew Graves said. "He's a team player and he likes to get his teammates involved. He does a good job of picking and choosing his spots to step up. Sometimes, he's too unselfish."
Before overtime against Loyola, Lickliter encouraged Graves to take over the game. Graves made 3-pointers on each of Butler's first two possessions in overtime, then made a third 3-pointer that broke a 66-66 tie with 55.2 seconds to play.
"I really like to be a part of the team, and I think the team concept is why we've gotten this far," Graves said. "There are times when you can get lost in that team concept, and coach has yelled at me to go get the ball and make something happen."
When Graves does have the basketball in his hands, chances are something good is going to happen for Butler.
"When he misses, that's when we're surprised," Butler forward Drew Streicher said. "We expect him to make it."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.