LEXINGTON, Ky. — Before Butler can move forward, it has a date with its past. • Card-carrying members of the college basketball elite after joining the Big East on Wednesday, the sixth-seeded Bulldogs (26-8) are long removed from their days as the cute and cuddly upset specialists in the NCAA tournament. That role now belongs to the likes of Bucknell, which faces Butler in the NCAA tournament’s East Region today.
“Butler really kind of set the gold standard, in my mind, for preparation and attention to detail and being the team that doesn’t beat itself,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “That’s kind of how we’ve tried to model our program.”
Gonzaga may have been the first “small school” to make a dent in the stranglehold the power conferences had on the tournament. It was Butler, however, that turned it into a free for all by reaching the NCAA title game in both 2010 and 2011.
No, Butler didn’t win it all — though it came close to knocking off Duke in 2010 when Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave clanged off the rim. But the Bulldogs erased the notion that little guys are inherently inferior, be it in the tournament or the regular season.
Butler’s reward for its precociousness was upward mobility: a jump from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 last year and, now, the Big East.
“It’s been an unbelievable 13 years, I can tell you that,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “To think about some of the places we’ve been and some of the places we’re going is kind of mind boggling. Being in the middle of it, I just tried my best to focus on our team.
“I know that sounds boring,” he added. “But if I didn’t, man. I could be pretty distracted right now.”
That’s the last thing Butler can afford against 11th-seeded Bucknell (28-5).
The Bison piled up victories by the bunches this season, and roll into the tournament with a seven-game win streak. Four of their starters — Cameron Ayers, Mike Muscala, Bryson Johnson and Joe Willman — have combined for 5,600 points in their careers, 1,745 this season alone. Muscala is one of the best big men still playing — one of those rare, 6-foot-11 offensive artists whose range extends beyond 4 feet.
“I haven’t seen anyone that we’ve played against score with his back to the basket in so many creative ways than Muscala,” Stevens said. “And I was talking to a BCS coach who has played them in the last few years, and he said in the last five years, Muscala is the best big guy they’ve played against. I think that sums it up.”
Though Bucknell was blown out in its last NCAA appearance, losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in 2011, it has some experience with upsets, too. Its best known, of course, was its takedown of third-seeded Kansas in 2005, a victory that first got Muscala, Johnson and Willman thinking about the Bison.
“I definitely remember it,” Willman said. “When coach contacted me and said they were from Bucknell, it definitely rang a bell, because you remember what they did in the tournament and you know that the school definitely has a potential to get back there.”
Bucknell actually won its first-round game the next year, too, beating Arkansas.
“Bucknell has all of the pieces and all of the experiences and all of the accomplishments that go along with the teams that go deep into the NCAA tournament out of a non-BCS league — a lot like the Butler teams of the past,” Stevens said.
“These guys are really accomplished. They’ve gotten a ton of accolades. They deserve all the accolades, but they’re still, in maybe the national media’s eyes or the national attention’s eyes, not getting their due respect. From us and from basketball people in basketball circles, they have the utmost respect and they’re a really good basketball team.
“I can appreciate that,” Stevens added. “What made me fall in love with the tournament were the teams like Bucknell or the teams like Butler or the teams like Davidson, all the way down the line.”
Butler hasn’t lost its scrappiness that made them a tournament darling. It handed then-No. 1 Indiana its first loss of the year and also knocked off Gonzaga, which joined the Hoosiers as one of the tournament’s top seeds.
But wins like that no longer raise the eyebrows they once did, and the stakes are only going higher with their admission to the Big East. After weeks of rumors, Butler, Creighton and Xavier officially joined the so-called “Catholic 7” on Wednesday.
“When I got recruited by Butler, I always called them a high-major program in a mid-major conference,” junior forward Khyle Marshall said. “I think that’s really starting to show right now, how capable we are playing in a big conference like the Big East. I was able to see the potential to see the potential of Butler since high school.”
Yes, Butler has definitely gone big time, and little guys everywhere — Bucknell included — see no reason why they can’t be next.
”There’s a lot of great teams that aren’t necessarily in the Big Six conferences,” Johnson said. “I think all 68 teams that were here tried to or expected to win — that was their motivation, at least. I don’t think anyone that’s still playing in the post-season goes in expecting to lose.”