After a close call against Bucknell, Butler will advance to the Round of 32. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON -- For a half hour or so, it seemed it would be Lexington where this March got its first madness. There was talk all week that sixth-seeded Butler could fall victim to one of the upsets that both define college basketball's postseason and have fueled its program's four-year transformation from strong Horizon League member to -- as of this week -- newest invitee to the revamped Big East. And when Bucknell junior Cameron Ayers hit a trey from the wing to cap a 19-5 run that put the 11th-seeded Bison ahead by four with just under 11 minutes left, the prediction's fulfillment lingered as a possible reality.
But in the ensuing timeout's huddle, famously levelheaded Butler coach Brad Stevens provided a self-fulfilling prophecy of his own: Just stay the course, he said. Don't go for home runs; just hit singles. And over the game's next eight minutes and the real world's next 30, without much drama, Butler steadily resumed doing what it is that Butler does: Winning NCAA tournament games.
That the Bison even had the Bulldogs on the ropes was somewhat surprising given that its most potent weapon, senior big man Mike Muscala, was effectively neutralized. He hit the game's first basket, displaying the range and versatility that has him on NBA draft boards by stepping out to hit a 17-foot jumper over a sagging defender. But for a team Butler center Andrew Smith said had no real tendencies to exploit and is "able to do everything," the Bulldogs -- whom Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen called the "gold standard" for game prep -- certainly found his weakness, doubling him on early post touches and bothering him with physicality.
"We knew we had to push him off the block and set a physical tone with him," said Butler junior Khyle Marshall, part of the Bulldogs' multi-pronged attack for defending the Patriot League's player of the year. As a result, Muscala made just four of his 17 field goal attempts, not scoring again after his opening bucket until the second half, and what could have been his national TV coming out party instead became his final game in a Bisons uniform.
"We spent a lot of time in preparation," Stevens said. "I hoped we'd be able to take something away."
The trade-off for so much attention on Muscala became open looks for his roommate, forward and fellow senior Joe Willman, whose lights-out mid-range shooting helped him double his season average with 20 points. Butler's own top shooter, senior and renowned three-point gunner Rotnei Clarke, was mostly quiet in his long-awaited NCAA tournament debut, shooting 2-for-8 in the first half, and so the scoring burden was shouldered elsewhere, with Roosevelt Jones leading the Bulldogs with nine first-half points. When Bucknell's "double-fist" triangle-and-2 defense began giving Butler trouble during the Bison's second-half run -- when Stevens reminded his team to stay the course -- the Bulldogs began to get the ball inside to Smith, who scored seven of his 11 points in the second half and grabbed 16 rebounds in the game, and tried to get the ball into the middle, or what Marshall described as the "teeth", of of Bucknell's D.
Butler began drawing fouls, making the free throws, and a little over eight in-game minutes after Ayers' three made the tournament's first upset seem possible, it had been steadily and deliberately snuffed out, with the only thing approaching a home run being a corner three by Smith. And by the time Clarke made a contested three to put Butler up 11 with 1:41 left, falling to the floor as the shot swished through the net in a bit of an exclamation point, things seemed to be firmly back on course, if not for a nation of viewers looking for an upset, then at least for Butler.