Plenty of Bite in the Bulldogs
INDIANAPOLIS -- Darnell Archey routinely attempts 10 half-court shots during Butler University practices and usually swishes at least five of them.
Brandon Miller has one of the most disjointed noses in the nation, a symbol of toughness that dates to when he played youth football despite a broken hand.
A week ago, Joel Cornette was one of a group of anonymous players most experts figured were headed for a quick dismissal from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. On Monday, he was on “SportsCenter.”
So go the story-lines for the latest Cinderella of March Madness, 12th-seeded Butler (27-5), which meets top-seeded Oklahoma (26-6) on Friday in an East Regional semifinal in Albany, N.Y.
“I’ve never seen ‘Hoosiers’ but I just saw a copy of it placed on Brandon’s doorstep, so I think I’ll watch it now,” said Butler forward Jeff James, a freshman from Tampa, Fla., who’s the only one of 15 Bulldog players not from the Midwest.
Comparisons between Butler -- enrollment only 4,000 -- and mythical Hickory High from the 1987 film that depicted the unlikely Indiana state high school championship won in 1954 by tiny Milan.
There are legitimate links, beginning with Butler’s home, Hinkle Fieldhouse, which was where the movie’s championship game was filmed. Beyond that, the Bulldogs’ attention to teamwork and fundamentals seems culled directly from the script.
“There hasn’t been much behavior change for us in the tournament, other than we seem to relish every moment that we have together,” said Mike Moore, a senior post player. “We love each other. And the thought this could be our last game bothers us. We want to see that guy next to us tomorrow.”
Butler won the Horizon Conference regular-season championship but was beaten, 69-52, by Wisconsin Milwaukee in the conference tournament and forced to sweat out a possible repeat of last year’s disappointment.
In 2002, the conference-champion Bulldogs were upset by Wisconsin Green Bay in the first round of the conference tournament and were jettisoned from NCAA tournament consideration despite a 25-5 record.
“It was a tough thing, especially because my mother [Maxine] died a day before the game,” Butler senior Rob Walls said. “I came to the game, and the team supported me at her funeral in Illinois. It was tough.”
Selection committee members weren’t the only ones giving Butler’s players a cold shoulder.
Barry Collier, credited with building the program into a winner, resigned in 2000 to take over at Nebraska. Assistant Thad Matta replaced Collier only to leave a year later to take the job at Xavier.
Another former assistant, Todd Lickliter, himself a Butler grad, is now in charge, but certain things haven’t changed.
The Bulldogs win with players skilled in fundamentals and devoted to unglamorous duties such as chasing loose balls, passing, and playing the type of defense that allowed them to rally from a 15-point deficit Sunday against Louisville.
Four Bulldogs average between 9.3 and 11.3 points.
“We do things the Butler way,” Walls said. “That means a great team effort.”
Walls displayed his selflessness during the second half of the Louisville game. When Cornette soaked his shoes in Gatorade after stumbling through the bench for a loose ball, Walls tossed his teammate his own size-15s.
Said Cornette: “We don’t have the budget or the name to win blue-chip guys, but we make up for vertical leap, fast 40 times and big bench press numbers by knowing the game very well.”
The team’s best players are point guard Miller and shooting guard Archey. Both seniors are shooting 43% from three-point range. Miller averages 12.4 points and 3.5 assists. Archey, who scored 26 points and made eight of nine three-point baskets against Louisville, averages 10.8 points and has made 69 of 71 free throws.
"[Archey’s] the best shooter in the country,” Cornette said. “He’s the only guy who knows how to break into this gym. And after a bad shoot-around, you should see how upset he is. To be a shooter, you have to be a perfectionist.”
Miller is a hustler, the type of player opponents despise and teammates adore.
“You look at his nose” -- estimated to have been broken six times -- “and you know what’s going on inside him as a person,” Cornette said. “I mean, you say hard-nosed player, and you literally think of Brandon Miller.”
Archey and Miller were raised east of Indianapolis in New Castle, attending Chrysler High in a city best known for its automobile plant.
Locals say the city’s population fluctuates between 16,000 and 20,000, depending upon how Chrysler is doing.
“Those guys grew up playing in YMCAs and small gyms because there was nothing better to do in their small town,” Cornette said. “You’re seeing the results.”
But even if Butler’s accomplishments are stunning to the outsiders, the Bulldogs said they don’t expect their run of upsets to end until four more are produced.
“There have been other No. 12 seeds who have made it to the Sweet 16,” Moore said. “When we win the title, then you can make the comparison to ‘Hoosiers.’ ”
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Won, Then Done
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 12-seeded teams are only 1-11 in the Sweet 16:
1985: Kentucky lost to No. 1 St. John’s, 86-70
1986: DePaul lost to No. 1 Duke, 74-69
1987: Wyoming lost to No. 1 Nevada Las Vegas, 92-78
1990: Ball State lost to No. 1 Nevada Las Vegas, 69-67
1991: Eastern Michigan lost to No. 1 N. Carolina, 93-67
1992: New Mexico State lost to No. 1 UCLA, 85-78
1993: George Washington lost to No. 1 Michigan, 72-64
1994: Tulsa lost to No. 1 Arkansas, 103-84
1996: Arkansas lost to No. 1 Massachusetts, 79-63
1999: Southwest Missouri St. lost to No. 1 Duke, 78-61
2001: Gonzaga lost to No. 1 Michigan State, 77-62
2002: Missouri defeated No. 8 UCLA, 82-73