Some observers may look at it as a team of 19-22 year olds trying to bide their time until practice officially starts. But as the #6 seed Butler Bulldogs (26-8) sat through the media session in their locker room and awaited their first practice at Rupp Arena in Lexington on Wednesday afternoon, they considered the game of “Hangman” to be a tradition.
Even if Sophomore Andrew Smeathers used the words “Pokemon Deluxe”, which maybe even more surprisingly, Junior Forward Khyle Marshall guessed the answer correct.
“We were saying if you haven’t played “Hangman” before, you have to go up there and do it,” said Butler Senior Andrew Smith. “So we are getting all of the young guys up there, and I’m sure they are embarrassing themselves a bit.”
It’s a tradition that goes back to the days of Butler’s runs to the NCAA title games back in 2010 and 2011. Sandwiched in between that last appearance two years ago, and this current one that starts with a second round contest against #11 seeded Bucknell (28-5) however, was a 22-15 season that finished with a 68-62 overtime loss to Pittsburgh in the College Basketball Invitational.
Which is these Bulldogs are reliving, and taking in every second, of each NCAA memory.
“I’ve never lost the opportunity to have gratitude to be back here,” said Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens.
“We were 22-5 in 2001-02 and we were the last team left out. Ever since then it has always been about getting here. It’s not about your seed, about all the stuff people want to talk about. We have been in the eight-nine game and have been in the championship, and we have been in the five-twelve game and have been in the final game. It is all about just getting the opportunity, and that is what you hope to take advantage of.”
One member of the Bulldogs who has been waiting to seize this moment is Senior Rotnei Clarke. The transfer from Arksansas, who with his one year with the Bulldogs leads the team in scoring with 16.7 ppg, three-point field goals with 108, and minutes per game with 33.2, has done everything possible to put Butler in this situation for the only NCAA tournament bid of his collegiate career. It doesn’t seem like Clarke is interested in letting that opportunity waste away.
“I think we are relaxed, we are loose, and at the same time focused,” said before the team’s shoot-around on Wednesday. “We know it is not time to play around here. We know this is obviously a huge opportunity for us, and we need to get focused and prepared for a really good Bucknell team.”
Bucknell is a pretty good team that could give the Butler some problems, but the Bulldogs know they have a not-so-secret weapon in their corner. It’s a well-known fact that Butler Head Coach Brad Stevens is one of the best in all of college basketball when given days to prepare for an opponent.
“We were at the selection show and we walked back into the locker room for ten minutes because of some media,” said Butler Senior Chase Stigall.
“And we were waiting for the guys to get back from the media, and coach comes up and says ‘I am ten minutes into their last game looking at some defensive breakdowns’. As soon as he was back into his office, he was breaking down their defense right then and there. Brad is the type of guy that knows what he is doing looking at X’s and O’s and looking at team’s defenses, and Michael Lewis has done the job of scouting this game. They have done everything and given us all the information we need to succeed.”
And now the Bulldogs are less than 24 hours away from competing in the tournament, something they are surely happy about, and they realize that they would be even more pleased with some tournament success to go along with it.
“We’ve had a great month of practice and that’s where it starts,” said Smith. “We’ve been working hard at practice and pushing each other to be better, that’s when you start to play well. That’s definitely happened, and we are ready to go tomorrow.”