After strange season, Butler comes through

MILWAUKEE -- The crowd at U.S. Cellular Arena was 10,000-deep. The students, universally clad in yellow, were packed like sardines from the floor to the rafters, swaying and buzzing with help from Kanye West on the arena loudspeakers. The song was "All Of The Lights."

You could just feel it: This was Milwaukee's moment. The shot every Cinderella mid-major prays for. A chance to win the Horizon League tournament title on its home floor, in front of its home fans, in its home city. This was the moment.

That moment didn't last long.

Turns out, there happens to be this rather tough program in the Horizon League, one that doesn't readily yield conference tournament titles or NCAA automatic bids to its league foes. That team? The Butler Bulldogs. You know, last year's national runner-up? The team whose storybook run to the precipice of a national title ended in defeat -- but just barely -- when guard Gordon Hayward's last-second halfcourt heave caromed off the backboard by mere inches?

You know, those Butler Bulldogs? Remember them?

"It doesn't get old. It's not easy to win this game, it really isn't," said Matt Howard, the Horizon tournament MVP following his team's 59-44 victory over Milwaukee. "We knew it was going to be rocking in here. The key is to jump on them, and we had to jump on them. We talked about that."

Led by Howard and guard Shelvin Mack, Butler, well, jumped on them.

The Bulldogs made two big runs Tuesday, but the most crucial one came in the first half. After star Milwaukee forward Anthony Hill made four free throws in the opening minutes, Butler went on a 19-2 sprint, opening up a 23-6 lead in the process. Milwaukee shot 2-for-12 and committed seven turnovers in that span, a product both of the Panthers' evident nerves -- guard Tone Boyle agreed UWM felt "the jitters" -- and Butler's aggressive defensive effort.

At 23-6, the U.S. Cellular Arena, rocking and rolling but minutes before, was dead quiet. The Bulldogs had immediately made Milwaukee's moment their own.

"Our experience in this game, games of this magnitude, probably allowed those first few minutes to go our way," Stevens said. "It's hard to play in this game, in this environment, if you haven't been there before."

Milwaukee didn't go away. As expected, once those jitters calmed down and some shots started falling, the Panthers made a 11-0 second-half run, even cutting the lead to 38-34 with 16:02 remaining. But Butler held onto its lead, got a series of key buckets from Howard and Mack -- including a pretty fast break pass for a Howard dunk -- and pulled away from Milwaukee late.

"It's been a trademark of our program I think to withstand the storm and just be resilient," Stevens said. "Last year in the tournament, that fairy tale would've never been written if we didn't have that trait."

Yes, Butler has been here before. The mid-major darling of the 2010 NCAA tournament is no underdog in the Horizon League. In the Horizon, the Bulldogs are the big bad bullies, the team with the most talent, the largest national profile, the hot young coach, and the expectations that come along with all of it. The Bulldogs are happy when they win the Horizon League tournament, but they're never surprised. Nor should they be.

But if you forgot about Butler in the past four months, you probably weren't the only one.

The Bulldogs opened the season with a nationally televised blowout at what then appeared to be a rebuilding Louisville team, and in the coming months, the bad losses -- in conference play, no less -- began to pile up. Butler lost to Evansville in Hinkle Fieldhouse. It lost to Milwaukee, to Wright State, to Milwaukee again. And then, on Feb. 3, came the loss that seemed to doom this team's NCAA tournament chances: A 62-60 defeat at Youngstown State.

Wait, Youngstown State? Yes, Youngstown State.

Last season, Butler went undefeated in the Horizon League. By Feb. 3, 2011, it had already lost five league games, including one to -- really? -- Youngstown State. The questions began to flow: What's wrong with this once-stout defense? Was Willie Veasley more important than we thought? Was this team really all about Gordon Hayward? Is Butler -- gasp -- soft?

Stevens was less concerned.

"I said this at the time, and I don't think anyone believed me: I thought we played OK at Youngstown," Stevens said. "I don't think we had ever guarded Youngstown that well before. We just couldn't score. They came back and beat us. That happens.

"We lost a couple of close games," Stevens said. "It's human nature to overreact."

If no one believed Stevens before, they do now. Tuesday night's win was Butler's ninth in a row. The Bulldogs, once left for dead in the NCAA tournament at-large picture, would have probably (if not definitely) been in the tournament even if they hadn't won Tuesday night. The automatic berth merely makes it official.

No, Butler isn't the team they were last year. They're lacking the NBA lottery-level talent of Hayward and the versatility of Veasley, and even in their nine-game winning streak Butler's defense hasn't approached the stifling, efficiency-killing heights it reached last season.

But after all the midseason uncertainty, it's still worth taking notice of these Bulldogs. They still have Mack. They still have Howard. They still have a coterie of sharpshooters and role players surrounding that duo, and this group is rounding into form at just the right time.

"It's the greatest thing in the world to qualify for the NCAA tournament, and to win your conference tournament, because nobody knows how hard that is," Stevens said. "Nobody knows what those meetings were like after the Youngstown game. Nobody knows how much people in that locker room were hurting. To see these guys respond like they have is pretty special.

"I told our guys, 'This team has done what the best Butler teams have done,'" Stevens said. "I'm looking forward to competing with them in the tournament."

They might not be magical, and they might not be destined for glory like last season's bunch -- though, really, how could you tell? -- but they're still disciplined and efficient. They're still the Horizon League champions. They're still heading to the NCAA tournament.

In other words: They're still Butler.