Not all March Madness memories are fond ones.
Jimmy Butler is used to being overlooked. Coming out of high school, he didn’t have any offers from Division I schools, nor did he get much hype from scouting services. Instead, the lanky forward from Tomball, Texas opted to attend a small junior college three hours north of his hometown, beginning his basketball journey at a school known more for its marching band than its sports teams.
In his freshman year, Butler averaged 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, leading Tyler Junior College to its first outright conference title in 21 seasons. After that, Butler started to garner attention from bigger, Division I schools. Eventually, the 6’7” swingman accepted an athletic scholarship to play at Marquette University.
In his first season with the Golden Eagles, Butler played the contributor role, earning the “Super Sub” Award for leading the team’s reserves in scoring 22 times. He’d then go on to flourish in his last two seasons at Marquette, averaging 15.2 points per game while taking on more of a leadership role. In his senior year, Butler and guard Darius Johnson-Odom led MU to the Sweet Sixteen, eventually losing to No. 7 ranked Florida.
Though they never reached the pinnacle of the college basketball world, Butler still looks back fondly on his time in school.
“[In the NBA], I play against a lot of the guys I played with [at Marquette],” says Butler. “Our teams play against each other and we always reminisce on those days.” When he sees players in the NBA that he used to match up against in college, those familiar, competitive juices start to flow. “We do still talk about the old [college rivalries] when we’re out on the court.”
For Butler, those moments of nostalgia tend to bring back both good and bad memories. Knowing that the Golden Eagles never won an NCAA championship while Butler was on the roster, it’s no surprise to hear that certain moments still hurt to this day. Butler's most prominent tourney memory brings new meaning to the phrase "March Madness."
“Like when Quincy Pondexter scored the game-winning basket on me," says Butler with a smile, remembering the shot the Washington forward hit to send Marquette to an early first-round exit from the 2010 NCAA tournament. “He reminds me of that whenever I play against him.”
There are also the good times, and the good people who Butler met along the way that have contributed to the player he’s become today with the Bulls. “Lazar Hayward, Wesley Matthews, Dominic James, Jerel McNeal … All of those guys were really good college players and they taught me a lot, things that I bring to the table now,” says Butler. “I’m very fortunate and thankful of that.”
No longer being overlooked as a contributor or mere defensive stopper, Butler has become a formidable presence on both the offensive and defensive ends for Chicago this season. The Marquette product has been forced to take on a greater amount of responsibility in the absence of the oft-injured Derrick Rose, and he's handled it admirably, averaging a league-high 38.9 minutes per game, earning his first NBA All-Star selection and posting career-highs in points (20.2), rebounds (5.9) and assists (3.3) per game.
The most notable area of improvement in Butler's game has been his offense, but his unique ability to lock down opponents with his size and menace makes him a perennial All-Star candidate. How did Butler become such an outstanding defender? He uses an approach that was shaped by his tireless work ethic at Marquette, having to take on all different sizes and styles of players. “My game plan is to try to stop them from scoring,” says Butler, bluntly. “Left handed, right handed, both handed, kicking it with your feet. I just try to play hard and stop them from scoring.”