Commentary

Fourth time's a charm for Butler

Originally Published: December 12, 2009
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sixteen years had passed since a ranked, power-conference team dared to take on Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Gordon Hayward
AP Photo/Michael ConroyGordon Hayward scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Butler over Ohio State.

So when No. 15 Ohio State arrived Saturday, Bulldogs fans were ready. Sophomore forward Gordon Hayward got a text message at 8 p.m. Friday from a student who was already camped out. Head coach Brad Stevens saw students lined up outside the building at 7 a.m. for a noon game.

"We talked about being thankful," Stevens said. "We said, 'Who in sports has a better opportunity today than Butler, with this crowd and the sunshine coming through the windows?'"

Opportunity, however, is a double-edged sword for a program of Butler's status. It's great when you get those rare chances to take on the big boys. But you'd better win a few or else risk being dissed and dismissed.

The Bulldogs have learned that this season. They entered the year ranked 10th in the coaches' poll and were a trendy pick to crash the Final Four down the road at Lucas Oil Stadium. Their schedule matched those expectations: Saturday brought their fourth ranked opponent since Nov. 26, and seven of their first nine games were away from home. Ohio State coach Thad Matta called the schedule "ridiculous."

Butler also lost its first three games against those ranked opponents, falling to Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown. That meant Saturday's game -- though it was in early December against a Buckeyes team missing its best player -- loomed as vitally important for the Bulldogs' NCAA tournament résumé.

This time, opportunity rocked. The 20th-ranked Bulldogs led by as many as 17 in the second half and held off a late charge for a 74-66 victory. The last time they beat a top-15 team at home? An upset of then-No. 11 Indiana in 1993.

"These games don't really mean anything for us, because we're worried about March," Hayward said. "But it's good for us, and we like the challenge."

The NCAA selection committee must remember in March that Ohio State (7-2) didn't have Evan Turner, its leader in scoring, rebounds and assists. Turner fell after a dunk and injured his back in the Buckeyes' previous game against Eastern Michigan and could miss two months.

Matta thought he might be without starting guard William Buford on Saturday as well. In an individual dribbling drill Thursday, Buford's back tightened up and he fell to the floor. The sophomore received heating treatments on the bench during timeouts and managed to play all 40 minutes, scoring a team-high 20 points.

[+] EnlargeThad Matta
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThad Matta and Ohio State had a harsh first lesson in life without Evan Turner as the Buckeyes fell to Butler.

Still, Matta had only a seven-man rotation Saturday, and Turner's replacement in the starting lineup -- senior guard P.J. Hill -- finished with no points, one assist and one rebound in 14 minutes. Matta was so worried about his lack of depth he employed a zone for most of the first half against a team that loves to pass and shoot.

Butler sliced through the gaps in that zone to grab an early double-digit lead. But that lead evaporated once its best inside presence, Matt Howard, got into foul trouble. No surprise there; Howard eventually fouled out for the sixth time this season. He had wanted to be aggressive in this game after some early-season disappointments; just not that much.

"I was trying to get back to how I used to play, maybe back in the fifth and sixth grade," Howard said. "And I tell you what, I was a fouling machine then, too. I've got to be smarter, because it puts a lot of pressure on the other guys."

Howard stayed on the floor for most of the second half, and Butler resumed command even against a man-to-man defense. With Hayward (24 points, eight rebounds) leading the way, the Bulldogs ripped off a 15-0 run to go up 67-50 with 4:32 left.

Turner's absence was felt most during that spurt. Not only did he account for 21 percent of the team's scoring, 30 percent of its rebounding and 32 percent of its assists this season, Matta said Turner could determine from a wordless glance what his coach wanted.

The Buckeyes tried running the offense through junior swingman David Lighty, who responded with 16 points and seven rebounds. But without Turner facilitating things, the team rushed shots and turned the ball over during the crucial second-half stretch.

"We've got to continue to learn and play smarter," Matta said, "because Evan is a guy who just does so much for you."

Without Turner, Ohio State looked more like the mid-major, with only one starter -- 6-foot-8 Dallas Lauderdale -- standing taller than 6-6. Butler outrebounded its Big Ten opponent 40-27, including a 15-5 edge on the offensive glass.

Bottom line: The Bulldogs should have beaten a Turner-less Buckeyes team.

"I don't think this really changes how confident we are," Howard said.

But it gives others more reason to have confidence in Butler. And for a program of its stature, that still means a lot.

Brian Bennett is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. You can find his Big East college football blog here.

ALSO SEE