Butler comfortable with new role as favorite

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Butler's evolution is complete.

The Bulldogs have gone from the Horizon to the A-10 to the new Big East starting next season. Along the way, they've played in two national title games.

They are no longer the cute underdog from Indianapolis.

"The Cinderella shoe doesn't fit anymore," Butler senior center Andrew Smith said.

Butler has the stature, the clout and the ingrained ability to withstand any challenge.

For Bucknell, beating Butler Thursday would have meant a great deal.

"They play in so many big games that they're not the type of team that's going to get rattled," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.

No, that wouldn't be the Butler way. Just ask Marquette, Indiana or Gonzaga this season. Sure, VCU got Butler out of whack in an early March loss, and Saint Louis did control the Bulldogs in winning three games against them.

This is not a team without flaws or the potential to lose control. But the program is in good shape.

This team has the ability to stick around in the tournament past this weekend after its 68-56 win against Bucknell at Rupp Arena.

Bucknell's NBA prospect, Mike Muscala, was forced into being a bystander at times, finishing 4-for-17 from the field and nine points. Had it not been for Joe Willman's 20 points, it wouldn't have been a game.

Smith is hardly discussed as an NBA prospect, yet he has been on the floor in winning situations against Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, Indiana's Cody Zeller and now Muscala. Smith had 16 rebounds and 14 points Thursday.

The Bulldogs wore the target well in the Horizon League when they were the primary draw. La Salle fans stormed the court after beating the Bulldogs in an A-10 game, a sign that Butler was coming of age.

Now -- in the NCAA tournament -- the Bulldogs have no issue with being the higher seed.

"It's fun, and we enjoy it," Smith said. "We always want to get everyone's best shot. It's fun for us. It makes us a great team."

Rotnei Clarke transferred from Arkansas and hadn't been part of a winning culture. He sat out last year and is playing in his one and only season at Butler.

He had never been on a team that heard its name called on Selection Sunday, let alone played in an NCAA tournament game. After the game, he described how cool this result was for him.

But what is unique is how much the Bulldogs reflect the demeanor of their coach, Brad Stevens, in close games.

They went from up seven to down six against Bucknell in the second half.

Did they fret? Hardly.

"It's calm, and it starts with our coach," Clarke said. "He's really calm, and he carries that over to us. We know we've been through big games and tough atmospheres. That got us through."

It always has for Butler. There are no more surprises. Butler is as much a part of the March landscape as any other team now. We expect it to survive and advance.

It was too bad the selection committee pitted these two programs against each other, because Bucknell also had the chops to advance in this field. But the Bison ran into a more formidable team and elite program.

"In the past, we've been Cinderella," Butler's Roosevelt Jones said. "Now we're the favorite and everyone is gunning for us. We're excited for it."