SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — After two games in the unfamiliar role of a higher seed, Butler is back where the Bulldogs are much more accustomed to being.
Welcome back to the underdog Bulldogs, who face top-seeded Syracuse on Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals.
The Bulldogs may eventually shed this image, but they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to do so. Actually, they really don’t seem to care either way.
“You don’t ever look at the seed or the number next to the team’s name, otherwise, you’ll let that become a factor in your mind,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
Butler is unbeaten in the NCAA tournament as the higher seed. But that has only happened four times and the Bulldogs (30-4) are quite comfortable playing as one of the tournament’s lesser-known teams.
The No. 5 seed is the highest for the school in its 10 NCAA tournament appearances, matching the Bulldogs’ position in 2007, when they also reached the regional semifinals before losing to eventual champion Florida.
Back then Butler was a real unknown.
Now that the Bulldogs are in the tournament for the fourth straight year and in the regional semifinals for the third time in the last eight seasons, the Horizon League champions’ reputation has grown enough that they earned the No. 11 ranking in the last AP poll and the eighth in the coaches’ poll.
Yes, they’re still the team that plays in the fieldhouse that served as the set for the state championship game in the movie “Hoosiers.” Yes, the Bulldogs get little of the attention that Indiana and Purdue receive in the country’s biggest basketball state.
Eventually, the high-profile respect and reputation will follow if the Bulldogs keep winning.
“What would you say we need to do to become a legit team? Do you have to get to the Elite Eight?” Howard asked. “I guess it’s up for debate. Obviously somebody — especially the coaches — think we’re a pretty good team.”
As does Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is trying to get the Orange (30-4) past this round for the first time since they won the national title in 2003.
The Orange know a little about being unheralded, too. They started the season unranked and ended it as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Boeheim doesn’t want his players to forget how far they had to climb this season when they prepare for the Bulldogs, who have won 22 in a row.
“I don’t look at conference when you get into the NCAA tournament. The only thing that matters in the NCAA tournament is the teams you’re playing against,” Boeheim said. “They’re as good a team as I’ve seen all year.”
The Orange will be without center Arinze Onuaku, who has an injured right quadriceps and missed Syracuse’s blowout wins over Vermont and Gonzaga in the first two rounds.
Onuaku averaged 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds this season. The longer the Orange stay alive in the tournament, the more likely they are to get their top big man back in the lineup.
“Our expectations for this team are very high,” forward Wes Johnson said. “Being in the 16 is a great accomplishment for us, but we’re trying to win it all.”
Johnson grinned and shook his head when asked what the secret was to Syracuse’s highly touted zone defense.
“I can’t give that out,” Johnson said before elaborating slightly. “I think our length gives a lot of teams a lot of problems.”
Well, that’s not much of a secret. The Bulldogs know what they’ll be facing. Can they shoot well enough to break through the zone and play their usual pesky defense and slow down Syracuse? Or do the Orange, the Big East’s regular-season champions, continue their run for another national title?
The winner will play either Kansas State or Xavier on Saturday for the ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Butler is heading there no matter what because it’s home. It would also make for quite a story, although Stevens and his players would prefer not to talk about it this early.
“I don’t really relax. I don’t think our guys do either,” Stevens said. “It’s never been mentioned in our locker room. It’s kind of funny. I’ve never heard our guys utter the phrase ‘Final Four.'”