Butler B-ball is tournament bound

The Bulldogs' Brandon Polk In late December, the Butler University Men’s Basketball ship was taking on water and in danger of sinking. The Bulldogs began the year 7-5. Three of their first five losses were to Big Ten powerhouses Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana. Those three losses were all away from Hinkle, but Butler gave a preview of things to come by taking the Buckeyes to overtime before eventually losing.

Then the Bulldogs decided to right their ship and set out to make waves in the Horizon League. They bailed themselves out and reversed course. Their remarkable turn-around began just over a month ago. Butler had an overall record of 9-8 and a league mark of 2-3 leading up to the contest with the Penguins of Youngstown State. On Jan. 21, the Bulldogs lost that closely fought game 64-62, but that defeat rekindled a competitive fire and since then Butler has posted a record of nine wins and two losses.

“We have always said that our goal is to improve every day and maintain a team first attitude,” said assistant head coach Brad Stevens. “This group has done that from day one, and that is a large reason why we’ve had some late season success.”

On Feb. 22 they defeated Youngstown State and in the process helped their head coach reach a milestone. Todd Lickliter has 100 victories in just five years as head basketball coach at Butler and reached that mark faster than any coach in Bulldog history (100-52). With that victory, their 18th of the season, the Bulldogs earned at least the No. 2 seed in the Horizon League Tournament and with it a bye into the league semifinals on March 4 at the U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee, Wis. Pretty good for a team picked to finish fifth in the league in a preseason poll.

They missed out on the opportunity to host the tournament with a 73-71 defeat to the Detroit Titans Saturday, Feb. 25 at Calihan Hall on the Detroit campus. Butler finished 11-5 in the league and 18-11 overall and can host the tournament final on March 7 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, if they are the highest surviving seeded team. That would mean that 2005 Horizon League Tournament champion University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, would have to lose in the semi-finals.

The Bulldogs are playing team ball with Brandon Polk leading the team in scoring and shoring up his bid for Horizon League Player of the Year. When asked to talk about Polk’s outstanding play this year, Stevens spoke about team unity. “Brandon’s had a great year,” he stated, “and he would be the first person to tell you that any award that comes his way is a direct result of not only his play, but also his teammates and the team’s collective success.”

Bruce Horan did manage to continue his remarkable run of at least one three-pointer a game to 76 games by hitting seven of 16 behind the three-point stripe against Detroit. “It’s a testament to his work ethic and his commitment to ‘soaring with his strengths,’” Stevens said. “Bruce recognizes his role and has made a commitment to do it to the best of his ability.” Horan is second all-time in NCAA Division I history; Cory Bradford from Illinois has the record of 88 straight games from 1998-2001.

The schedule for the Dawgs begins Saturday, March 4 at Milwaukee in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals. They will play the victor of the Game 4 match-up of Wright State versus the winner of the Illinois-Chicago and Detroit contest. Winning the league tournament would mean an automatic berth and a return to the NCAA Tournament for Butler. In the Bulldogs’ last appearance in the “Big Show,” they demonstrated what a well-coached, motivated team with momentum could do: stun the world. That fantastic 2002-’03 post-season run when Butler shocked the NCAA Basketball world by beating No. 5 seed and Associated Press No. 20 ranked Mississippi State, 47-46. and No. 4 seed and Associated Press (No. 14) Louisville, 79-71, will live on in the history of Butler basketball forever. The Bulldogs, then the 12th seed, earned its first NCAA Tournament Sweet-16 berth since 1962. They eventually lost to No. 1 seeded Oklahoma 65-54 and finished the season with a 27-6 record but the Bulldogs were rewarded by being ranked No. 20 in both the USA Today/ESPN poll and the Associated Press national polls.

Can the Dawgs revive the magic of old and play deep into the NCAA Tournament? That remains to be seen. First comes the Horizon League Tournament. By playing tenacious defense that sets up their team-oriented offense and by taking care of the ball, they are third in the NCAA Division I in fewest turnovers. One thing is certain, if Butler gets in, 63 other teams will be very aware of their presence and maybe a little hesitant to be matched up against them; the Dawgs plan to show everyone in America that they belong.

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