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Butler hopes to shake 'first losers' moniker

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

HOUSTON -- Butler's trip is 1,036 miles this year, not six. The only way players are getting to class is if they Skype. And it's a safe bet there won't be 30,000 Bulldog fans jamming Reliant Stadium for their open practice today.

The hometown lovefest that surrounded Butler at last year's Final Four is gone. This is a road trip, not a "Hoosiers" remake, and the Bulldogs want something better than second place this time.

"We feel like we were just the first losers from last year's tournament," Shelvin Mack said Thursday.

Now that's a little harsh.

The Bulldogs delighted the country last year, giving the Final Four a distinctly warm-and-fuzzy feel. They were a mid-major crashing the power schools' party, and doing it just down the road from their campus made the story even better. The players were in class between practices and interviews like the rest of Butler's 4,200 students, and future NBA lottery pick Gordon Hayward even managed to make it back to his hometown church for Easter services with his family.

The memory that sticks most with the Bulldogs, though, is how it ended. Butler held its own against Duke in the national title game, coming within a half-court shot by Hayward that bounced off the rim of winning the whole thing.

A loss is a loss, no matter how impressive the effort.

"The feeling I had after we lost. That's one of the worst feelings," Shawn Vanzant said, not hesitating when asked what he remembers most from last year. "To work so hard and come so close and fall a little bit short, that's been driving me all year."

Added Ronald Nored, "I don't want to come here and be defeated twice."

Butler (27-9) plays VCU, this year's version of the plucky underdog after going from the "First Four" to the Final Four, in the national semifinals Saturday night.

That Butler is even back at the Final Four is impressive. Only a dozen other schools have managed it since the tournament expanded in 1985, and the list reads like a Who's Who of college basketball:

Duke. North Carolina. Kentucky. Kansas. UCLA. Michigan State, just to name a few. (Michigan did it, too, but the Fab Five's appearances were later vacated by the NCAA.) Butler has managed it despite losing Hayward, who led the Bulldogs in scoring (15.5 points) and rebounds (8.2), and two other veterans who got significant playing time, Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes.

The Bulldogs still had Mack, Nored, Vanzant, a trio of sweet-shooting and smooth-passing guards, and Matt Howard, their second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer last year. But they had to rely heavily on Chase Stigall, who was on the floor for all of 44 minutes last year; Andrew Smith, who scored 24 points; and a freshman, Khyle Marshall.

The growing pains were obvious midway through the Horizon League season, when the Bulldogs lost four of five games, including a stretch of three straight. Once one of the country's stingiest teams, they were giving up points in bunches.

Forget getting back to the Final Four. Many wondered whether Butler could even get back to the tournament.

"The few losses we had, it was tough, especially coming off the season before," Nored said. "You have a lot of guys who want to be good, right away. But that took a second to build. It took a second for this team to be where we are now. I really think it took until the beginning of February for us to get to this point."

Finally, though, in a Feb. 3 game at Youngstown State, the Bulldogs figured out what they'd been doing wrong.

"We were really focused on the defensive end of the floor," Howard said. "We weren't guarding the way we normally had, and I think that was really important for us to get back to that."

Butler lost the game, 62-60 in overtime. It hasn't lost since, bringing a 13-game winning streak that's best of any of the Final Four teams into Saturday night's game.

The Bulldogs are giving up 59.6 points during the stretch, almost eight points better than their average through the first 23 games of the season. Only two teams have managed to get 70 or more off Butler, both in the NCAA tournament. Butler upset top-seeded Pittsburgh 71-70 in the second round and beat Florida 74-71 in overtime to win the Southeast Regional final.

"The season goes from Oct. 15 until March 1, at the earliest. You're supposed to get better during that time," coach Brad Stevens said. "But it's hard. People get tired. But if you have a team that's committed to one another and willing to work through it, the chances of getting better are high."

Even higher when there's some unfinished business.

"A lot of people were counting us out this year," Vanzant said. "We really want to win this thing."