Bulldogs putting new spin on mid-major label

For the last few years, Butler basketball has been synonymous with successful basketball, writes Kim Baxter.

Originally Published: March 17, 2007
By Kim Baxter | Special to ESPN.com

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Go ahead and call them a mid-major. Go ahead and call it an upset. Go ahead and sleep on the Butler Bulldogs.

A.J. Graves
AP Photo/David DupreyA.J. Graves poured in 19 points in Butler's upset of Maryland.
They just don't care.

"I get tired of 'mid-major' sometimes," said junior guard Mike Green. "But I guess it doesn't matter when you're out there on the court whether you're coming from the ACC or the CAA. It all depends on what you do out there on the floor. I'll take any label."

On Saturday, the only label that mattered to Butler was "Sweet 16" because with a 62-59 win over fourth-seeded Maryland, the Bulldogs earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend.

"I'm going to say we're a mid-major," said junior A.J. Graves, who scored a team-high 19 points. "I don't know how you don't label us as mid-major. Coming from 3,000 people at our school, it's just small. We don't get to play in the major conference and we don't get the attention, but that's not going to stop us. That doesn't mean we can't play."

Maryland found that out Saturday as fifth-seeded Butler (29-6) advanced to the Sweet 16 for the program's second time (the first was in 2003).

The Bulldogs knocked off the Terrapins in dramatic fashion -- executing perfectly in the final minutes of their win. Twice the Bulldogs' deliberate and perimeter-oriented offense, predicated on ball and player movement, whittled the shot clock down to its final ticks. And twice, the team capitalized with a Brandon Crone jump shot as the 35-second horn sounded.

The first one, from about 25 feet, gave Butler a 54-48 cushion. The second shot, with three minutes to play, gave the Bulldogs a 58-56 lead, which they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.

But leading 61-59, Butler made a sloppy inbounds pass (the team's only turnover in the final nine minutes) to give Maryland the ball with less than a minute to play. But when D.J. Strawberry cut to the basket and barreled into Crone, he was called for a charge. Maryland ran the same exact play on the previous possession and that time, Strawberry was fouled and went to the free-throw line.

It was a controversial call with 40 seconds remaining. Crone admitted he might have made his defensive rotation underneath the basket, but Maryland refused to blame the call.

"It's 50-50," Strawberry said. "It went their way. You can't do anything about it."

A.J. Graves (4)
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaA.J. Graves and Butlers are celebrating their second trip to the Sweet 16.
Even with the charge, Maryland still had life.

With 40.6 seconds left and a 5.6-second differential between the shot clock and game clock, the Terrapins opted to defend Butler for the length of the possession, hoping for a missed shot and a defensive rebound. Maryland coach Gary Williams gambled that his team could corral the miss and score in the short time frame. The Bulldogs shoot 76 percent at the foul line, and the coach liked his team's chances in an unsettled situation.

But Butler protected the ball and eventually found Julian Betko for a wide-open 3-pointer with just one second on the shot clock. The shot was short, but Green -- who at 6-foot was the shortest player on the court -- read the miss and grabbed the rebound.

"We did what we wanted to do," Williams said. "We made them miss the shot. The problem is you expect to get the rebound in that situation and we didn't get the rebound."

Maryland failed to execute when it needed to the most. Butler -- which has forged its mettle in wins over Notre Dame, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Indiana and Purdue -- played like a grizzled, confident team down the stretch.

"Size really doesn't matter," Green said. "As you can see, they were way bigger than us, way more athletic. It's not always about that. We were fortunate to come out with the win."

Butler plays with a basketball IQ that is incalculable, but also an intangible facet of a Sweet 16 berth.

The Bulldogs are not big. Their tallest starter is Brian Ligon at 6-foot-7. They are not deep. They essentially use a seven-man rotation. They are not overly athletic. They finished with zero blocks and zero dunks, an unusual statistic that Williams compared to a game from his playing days.

But Butler understands its strengths and takes advantage.

The Bulldogs hit 12 3-pointers and 11 2-pointers. They rarely turn the ball over, committing just 12 against Maryland. Their feisty, aggressive defense creates turnovers, even when they're out of position. The Terps committed 17 turnovers.

It was an impressive display of Basketball 101 from a physically overmatched team.

"They use their body for position, they use their position to get in the way when you try to make a cut, and that's the way they play," Williams said. "I think you're seeing a new trend in college basketball. If you look at a lot of teams that don't have the size they used to have, but yet they're still effective. There's a lot of ways to play this game. You have to adjust as time goes by to a different way to play basketball."

And for the past few years, Butler basketball has been synonymous with successful basketball. The program has won at least one game in the 2003 and 2001 NCAA Tournaments. Coach Todd Lickliter is now 4-1 in the Big Dance. With two Sweet 16 appearances in the past five seasons, the Bulldogs have joined some of the top programs in the country.

All this from a self-proclaimed mid-major who embraces the label.

"Call us mid-major," said Joel Cornette, the team's coordinator of basketball operations and a member of the 2003 Sweet 16 squad. "Call us whatever you want. But as long as you're talking about us, that's all that matters. Maryland's a major, but I'd bet they'd love to be the mid-major in the Sweet 16 right now. I've always taken it not as disrespect. We succeed with less money, less resources, less support, less coverage than the big guy, and it makes it that much more special. … It's great to be along for the ride."

Kim Baxter is a staff writer for the Syracuse Post-Standard.

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