INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A few weeks ago, Butler was seen as a team with little bite. A preseason poll picked the Bulldogs to finish sixth in the Horizon League.

The Bulldogs’ growl is a lot more noticeable after wins over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga.

The upset victories in the NIT Season Tip-Off have made Butler the surprise team of the young basketball season and given the No. 19 Bulldogs their highest national ranking in more than a half-century. The 8-0 start is Butler’s best since opening the 2002-03 season with 10 straight victories.

“We’re probably more skilled than people thought we would be,” said coach Todd Lickliter, who lost three starters, including player of the year Brandon Polk and two 1,000-point scorers in Bruce Horan and Avery Sheets.

Lickliter, the heir to a coaching legacy started by Hall of Famer Tony Hinkle almost 80 years ago, was the Horizon League coach of the year last season, when the Bulldogs (20-13) produced the school’s eighth 20-win season in the past 10 years.

With the return of A.J. Graves, a throwback to an era of skinny, blue-collar sharpshooters, and forward Brandon Crone, and the addition of point guard Mike Green, who sat out as a transfer last year, Lickliter knew the Bulldogs had the makings of another good team.

“Guys who play as a team, who play toward their strengths, who are so focused they even know their teammates’ strengths and play to them, can accomplish things,” said Lickliter, one of four former Butler players on the coaching staff. “We know that’s the beauty of basketball. Individually, we may not be gold-medal winners, but collectively we can be.”

That’s long been the Butler tradition in a hoops-crazed state where “Hoosier Hysteria” typically focuses on Indiana and Purdue.

In 1924, four years before Hinkle became coach and long before there were NIT or NCAA tournaments, Butler won an AAU national championship. In 1929, Hinkle’s second year at Butler and the inaugural season in the 15,000-seat fieldhouse that now bears his name – and where scenes from the film “Hoosiers” were filmed – the Bulldogs were named national college champions by the Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia.

National recognition has been spotty since then.

Butler reached the NCAA round of 16 twice – in 1962 and in 2003. From 1996-2002, the Bulldogs made four NCAA appearances under three different coaches – Barry Collier, Thad Matta and Lickliter. Yet the 25-5 Bulldogs were snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee in 2001-02 because of a low RPI rating.

This week’s ranking is the Bulldogs’ highest since 1948-49, when they climbed as high as No. 11 in the Associated Press poll’s first season. The Bulldogs were ranked for three weeks in 2001-02, reaching as high as 20th.

“We’re thankful for it, for the guys who have come before us and have been able to succeed,” Lickliter said. “The guys come back and have ownership still. … It’s an easy thing to see there’s a lot of joy competing and playing at Butler.”

A.J. Graves, who leads the team in scoring at 18.9 points this season, said the Bulldogs have always been about team play.

“Everybody has to commit to it, playing defense, taking care of the ball, playing the game the way it should be played,” Graves said. “You could say we’re blue collar basically, yeah. There is no superstar on this team. We realize that. We’ve all got to do our jobs and do our best.”

Green, a flashy, high-scoring player in high school in Philadelphia, started two years at Towson before transferring to Butler. He has started every game this season at point guard, is second in scoring at 13.3 points and leads the Bulldogs in rebounding (4.5) and assists (4.3).

“We all play together as one, offensively and defensively, which is the Butler way,” said the 6-foot junior, who had 16 points in Wednesday’s 60-47 win over Valparaiso.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised,” Green said of the Bulldogs’ early success. “It just came faster than I thought it would. It’s just fun winning.”

Senior Brian Ligon, who scored a career-high 13 points in Butler’s double-overtime win over Kent State, said playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse adds to the sense of tradition.

“It’s always great to play here,” the Florida native said of the arena, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. “Watching the movie “Hoosiers,’ it gives you insight of what basketball means in the state of Indiana.”

The fieldhouse was used in the 1985 film, which was inspired by tiny Milan’s improbable high school championship in 1954.

Tradition aside, Ligon said the Bulldogs aren’t letting the early attention go to their heads.

“We’re working hard and I think we’re deserving of it,” he said of the national ranking, “but we’re not going to let that get in the way of how we prepare and continue to play this season.”

And that preseason poll that picked Butler sixth in the Horizon League? Lickliter voted the Bulldogs No. 1.

“If I didn’t believe we could win, who is going to believe?” he said.

A lot of people, now.

AP-ES-11-30-06 1622EST

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