Bill Trocchi
Thursday November 29th, 2007

Knocking off BCS conference teams, winning preseason tournaments, being ranked in the top 25 and talking to the national media is nothing new for Butler. In fact, according to guard A.J. Graves, this is getting "routine."

Routine? For any mid-major school not named Gonzaga, all of that is anything but routine. But for Butler, which is 6-0 and ranked No. 16 after winning the Great Alaska Shootout, this team has experienced it all before.

"Last year, it was new for all of us -- how to deal with the media, teams coming in and giving us their best shot, stuff like that," Graves said. "Now that we have been through that for a year and have the same guys coming back, we are able to focus on the task at hand. We are better prepared for it this year."

Last year, Butler came out of nowhere to win the preseason NIT championship with victories over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. That led to a season in which the Bulldogs were ranked the final 16 weeks of the year, including as high as No. 10 in early February. Butler put a scare into eventual national champion Florida in the Sweet 16 and ended up with a school-record 29 wins.

Post players Brandon Crone and Brian Ligon moved on, but the biggest departure was coach Todd Lickliter, who bolted for Iowa after seven seasons. Assistant Brad Stevens was promoted to the head job, and he has the luxury of starting five seniors who have seen Butler grow from solid mid-major into one of the top small programs in the country.

"We didn't want to take a step back," said Graves, who leads the team with 18.5 points per game. "We return five seniors and a strong, young bench. We just want to continue to move forward."

That experience was on display in Alaska. After bombing Michigan in the opener with 17 three-pointers, Butler survived a tough challenge from Virginia Tech in overtime before beating Bob Knight and Texas Tech 81-71 in the final. For Stevens, 30, the matchup against Knight will be one he'll remember.

"I didn't think of it as Brad Stevens vs. Bobby Knight, because it would have been about 896 to 5. We'd be in trouble," Stevens said. "I just thought about how to prepare for his team. When you are growing up watching his team, you appreciate how good of a coach he is. When you coach against him, you are blown away."

Knight took some time to speak to the entire Butler staff, all of whom are in their early 30s.

"I was extremely humbled by the comments he made about our team," Stevens said. "He was unbelievable. It meant a ton to me as a person who grew up in Indiana and all of our assistants who grew up in Indiana."

The Great Alaska MVP was guard Mike Green, who plays alongside Graves to give Butler one of the better backcourts in the nation. Green averaged 20 points and 6.7 assists while sitting out just eight minutes in the three games.

"We saw what we were capable of last year," said Green, who was 7-for-8 from three during the tournament. "This is definitely a way to get off to a fast start."

Up next for Butler is one of its most highly anticipated games of the season: Former Butler coach Thad Matta returns to his alma mater with Ohio State for a showdown at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday.

"I hope it is everything I've dreamed of," Green said. "Big-time school, sold-out crowd. I think that is something most guys dream of."

This is the second game of a four-game contract between the two schools, with each side getting two home games.

"For Thad to bring Ohio State to Butler means a lot to Butler," Stevens said. "To be able to have a school like Ohio State agree to a contract like that is certainly something we're thankful for."

The unforgettable Cinderella of the 2006 NCAA tournament, showed it has a chance to again be a factor in 2007-08.

George Mason finished third at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, with wins over Kansas State and South Carolina sandwiched around an 84-76 loss to Villanova. George Mason is 5-1 and remains one of the favorites in the competitive Colonial Athletic Association.

"From the standpoint of why we played in the tournament, we got everything out of it that we could have hoped for and more," said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. "It was national television, great exposure for our program, and we got to play against teams from the Big 12, Big East and SEC. Not only did we get a chance to play them, we beat two of three."

Larranaga says the lure of this preseason tournament, especially for a mid-major program, is the opportunity to challenge power conference schools on a neutral floor. The NIT Season Tip-Off and Coaches vs. Cancer events usually involve larger programs hosting early round games, whereas in Orlando, none of the eight teams had a home court edge except for UCF, which lost its first two games.

George Mason faced one of the top freshmen in the nation in its opening game, and Kansas State's Michael Beasley did not disappoint. Beasley had 30 points and 10 rebounds, but Mason made the big plays down the stretch and pulled out an 87-77 win against the then-No. 19 Wildcats.

The Patriots' 69-68 win over South Carolina came down to the final possession, with freshman Cam Long stealing the ball before the Gamecocks had a chance to attempt a game-winning shot.

George Mason returns all five starters from last season's 18-15 team, and it has added some talented freshmen to the mix.

"I would say our experience was a factor [in winning two of the three games], but in two of the games, two of our freshmen really stepped up," said Larranaga. "When we beat Kansas State, Vlad Moldoveanu scored 10 points and really helped us stretch their defense.

"In the win over South Carolina, Cameron Long did a great job. Although our seniors were very effective, I felt like some of our young players stepped up and that will help us develop."

Wright State played just its second game of the season on Wednesday, defeating Marshall 77-70. The reason for the light slate of games? Wright State was waiting for its first academic quarter to end so UNC-Wilmington transfer John David Gardner would be eligible. Gardner, who was recruited by Wright State coach Brad Brownell when Brownell was at UNCW, became eligible Thanksgiving week when the first quarter ended and played 25 minutes in Wright State's 71-48 win over Coastal Carolina in their opener... Big man Tim Clifford scored 23 points as Holy Cross whipped Yale 60-39 to improve to 6-0. It is the Crusaders best start in 19 years... Kent State improved to 5-2 with a surprisingly easy 81-40 win over Rick Majerus and Saint Louis on Wednesday. Kent State led 42-15 at halftime. Since losing their opener by a point at Detroit, the Flashes have won five of six.

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