For the past decade plus Gonzaga has been the blueprint for a successful mid major program. While that may be true there is another Bulldog program that has reached heights that Gonzaga has yet to achieve. When Butler reached the National Championship game in 2010 almost everyone believed that while it was a great story for college basketball, the Bulldogs were probably a one-hit wonder much like George Mason before them in 2006.
In 2011 all of the naysayers were served a big dish of crow as not only did Butler return to the tournament but they returned to the Final Four where they defeated a fellow Cinderella, 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth to reach their 2nd straight National Championship game, a feat that is considered no small feat regardless of the competition a team faces or what conference they come from.
Even though they hadn’t won either title they had entered the consciousness of basketball fans and with their foot in that door and a young star in head coach Brad Stevens, Butler was seemingly here to stay.
After the 2011 season Butler was hit hard by graduation and defections including all-league star Matt Howard. The result was a really good year for most but a “down year” for a team coming off back-to-back national title games, the 20-14 Bulldogs were invited to the CBI Tournament where they made the semifinals before losing to Pittsburgh in overtime. During the offseason pundits wondered if the Horizon League would still be Butler’s empire, then came news that along with 2011 Final Four mate VCU Butler would be leaving the Horizon League for the Atalntic 10 in time for the 2012-13. The additions would make the A-10 a tremendously competitive basketball league. But what would it mean for Butler who had carved out a comfortable, almost dominating niche in the Horizon?
The answer would come when the Bulldogs were picked 6th in the Atlantic 10’s preseason poll. They got an early test in the Maui Invitational where they reached the final by defeating Marquette at the buzzer thanks to Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke. The next day they defeated then 9th ranked North Carolina to reach the final where they fell to Illinois. Like they had in March years back, even though they hadn’t won the title, the team’s performance in Maui had opened the eyes of people around the country. The rest of the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule was void of marquee, resume-building games except for a December 15th neutral-court tilt in Indianapolis with undefeated #1 Indiana. In one of the best games of the season to date Butler defeated the Hoosiers 88-86 in overtime on a layup by sophomore Alex Barlow.
Butler finished the early portion of their schedule at 12-2, while good all it did was prepare them for something that was completely new to them, a new conference to compete against. The real test would come as they get into the meat of conference play. They passed the first test, on the road by defeating the team that was picked to win the league St. Joseph’s 72-66 overcoming a first-half deficit thanks to six 3-pointers and 28 points from Clarke. The now 9th ranked Bulldogs (16-3, 3-1 in the A10) won an instant classic over Gonzaga 64-63 when Roosevelt Jones hit a jumper with 0.1 left on Saturday.
Most successful teams have upperclassmen leadership and a “glue guy”,that is a guy who keeps things together and settle his team down during those stressful times of a game. For Butler that guy is senior big man Andrew Smith, as one of only two guys on the roster (the other is senior Chase Stigall) to have gone through the ups of two Final Fours and the “downs” of a trip to the CBI. Smith is the guy that coach Stevens to be the calming influence on the floor.
Smith says of the experience of the of his freshman season followed by the improbable repeat run, “It was the first time we had ever done any of that stuff so it was pretty crazy, fortunately with a coach like Brad Stevens he prepares you well for it.”
“I use the phrase the first year was a crazy party and the second year was more of a business trip, we sort of knew what to expect. Unfortunately we didn’t come out with a win.”
The 6-11 senior from Indianapolis, is a perfect complimentary player in Coach Stevens’ line up. A lot of what Smith brings to the Bulldogs doesn’t show up in the boxscore. Even though he didn’t see much action his freshman season the experience he gained was invaluable because in his sophomore year he averaged nearly 24 minutes a game and has been a steady performer for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons. In 2010 Butler had Gordon Heyward and Howard to lead them offensively, in 2011 Howard was still on campus. Last season someone needed to fill those offensive shoes, Smith was the only member of the team to average double figures in points. In his sophomore year he scored 10+ points 14 times and last season that number grew to 25, this year he has eclipsed the 20-point plateau three times.
During Butler’s one “down” year, Smith’s junior campaign he says of trying to replace Heyward and Howard, “you’re going to have a group effort and contributions from everyone on the team.”
He didn’t feel any extra pressure, the only pressure was, “the fact that we couldn’t really score the ball, that was really on everybody not just me.”
Transitioning to the Atlantic 10 in his final season Smith says, “they (the coaches) all do a great job of getting a scouting report for each game and coming up with a good strategy. As long as we go out and implement the coaches’ game plan we feel like we have a good chance of winning.”
The biggest difference between the A-10 and the Horizon League for Smith is the number of teams 16 as opposed to 10 and the fact that you are only playing some teams once. “You can’t really mess around, you need to make sure you win that first game.”
“Night in and night out you have a great opponent and we understand that if we don’t come out and play well we are gonna get beat.”
As his role has grown his ego has not, he understands his role and what he needs to do for Butler to be successful and so do his teammates. Smith considers himself more of a follow my lead type leader but says with the graduation of Ronald Nored, who was the vocal leader, “I took on that responsibility myself and become that vocal leader, it’s not really a natural role for me but I’ve come into it pretty well.”
As his college career winds down Smith has had more of a chance to take in everything he and his teammates have accomplished, “It’s kind of amazing to look back and see the Final Fours, another great team this year, being able to be coached by Coach Stevens and being a part of this great program. I don’t want to take anything for granted, it’s been an amazing ride I’ll be sad for it to be over.”
The Bulldogs may not have the superstar player of the Heyward or Howard ilk but with Clarke and the steadying force of Smith, even in a new conference where they may not be the favorite, people are realizing they are going to be more of a force than the sixth best team in the Atlantic 10. Different conference, same Butler
With the way the Bulldogs have looked this season, it looks as though even in a new conference Smith and company will be writing another chapter in the anthology that has become Butler Basketball.