National Columnist

Butler team that beat Bucknell has some work to do

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- If this is another one of those Butler teams, the kind we've seen and our children will read about in history books -- the kind that reached the national title game in 2010 and did it again in 2011 -- then we're going to need see more than we saw Thursday in the first round against Bucknell.

"Might not have been the most aesthetic game," is how Butler coach Brad Stevens opened his postgame press conference.

He's right, but Butler did beat Bucknell -- and that's good. That's a hell of a lot better than the alternative, obviously. But Butler comes into the NCAA Tournament with an odd, probably unfair bull's eye on its back: How far you gonna go this year? We're waiting. And watching.

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The Butler team that beat Bucknell 68-56 on Thursday isn't going to go very far, but then again the sixth-seeded Butler team that beat 11th-seeded Bucknell bore little resemblance to the Butler team that had won 26 games this season with victories against potential second-round foe Marquette as well as North Carolina, Indiana and Gonzaga. The Hoosiers and Zags are No. 1 seeds in this tournament. Butler has beaten them. So Butler, clearly, can be very good.

Better than the Butler team that was here Thursday, shooting 36.4 percent from the floor overall and 17.6 percent on 3-pointers, and getting 5-for-14 shooting from leading scorer Rotnei Clarke.

To win Butler needed the prettiest whistle it will ever see -- the Bulldogs attempted 28 free throws, Bucknell just eight (zero in the first half) -- a differential even Stevens acknowledged was a big deal, calling it "a huge, huge separator for our guys."

To win Butler also needed the worst offensive game of the season by Bucknell star Mike Muscala. A 2,000-point scorer described Wednesday by Stevens as an eventual decade-long NBA player, Muscala was 4-for-17 from the floor. Butler deserves some credit for that, surrounding Muscala and being physical with him, but even Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen noted, gently, after the game that Muscala was getting the ball in positions where he has been effective this season. He just wasn't effective Thursday. He turned and shot the same shots he has made all season, but on this day the shots didn't go in. It happens.

And in fairness to Butler, it happens against Butler more than it happens against other teams. Butler wins with defense, and it won with defense Thursday. How much of Muscala's subpar game was due to Muscala, and how much was due to Butler? I don't know. I still can't figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg. Don't ask me about Muscala-or-Butler.

Stevens likes to think his team had a lot to do with Muscala's struggles. And he's probably right.

"We spent a lot of time in preparation," Stevens said. "I'd hope we'd be able to take something away."

Butler took away Muscala but couldn't identify, or stop, the only player on Bucknell who was hurting them -- senior forward Joe Willman, a 1,000-point career scorer reliant on catching-and-shooting to score. And I'll be damned, Willman kept getting open for the catch-and-shoot, at one point hitting six jumpers in a row and scoring 20 of Bucknell's first 42 points. At that moment it was a one-point game, 43-42 for Butler with about six minutes left, but the Bulldogs took off from there.

In the final six minutes Butler solved Bucknell's triangle-and-two defense to hit 3-pointers and mid-range jumpers and to bury almost every free throw. In the final six minutes Butler found Willman and shut him down, while continuing to stymie Muscala and weathering a 3-point eruption from Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers.

The Butler team that dominated Bucknell for the final six minutes on Thursday can beat Marquette or Davidson on Saturday, and then can feel good about its chances in the Sweet 16. Understand that, OK? Don't tell me you got this far and decided I've ruled out Butler from the Sweet 16, or farther. I've not. The Butler team that shot 45.8 percent on 3-pointers and scored 86 points to beat Indiana? The Butler team that played Gonzaga without the injured Clarke and still shot 50 percent from the floor to beat the Zags? Those Butler teams can beat anybody.

Anybody.

Which Butler team shows up next? How far you gonna go this year? We're waiting, Butler. And we're watching.

 
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