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Butler's defense: Dirty little secret? Hard-nosed play?

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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HOUSTON -- Butler guard Shelvin Mack was asked about his team's defensive reputation in the Horizon League. Mack smiled and then relayed what other players in that league have told him. There was no mincing of words, no coat of sugar.

"They say we foul a lot," Mack explained, "on every single play."

And that those fouls aren't called.

"There are teams that say we approach the line defensively," said Butler's Khyle Marshall, "and that sometimes we cross it. We don't. That's just not true. We're not dirty."

"A couple of the Horizon League teams think a lot of our guys flop," Butler's Chase Stigall said.

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One of the schools even has a Butler flop chant.

"If teams are complaining about us on the defensive side," said center Andrew Smith, "it's a good thing."

This is Butler's well-earned image: pure as Indiana snow. The anti-turds. Scrambled eggs and bacon on a Sunday morning. The right way. The tight way. Honeycombs and puppies and your first kiss. The pyramids, the moon landing, The Butler Way.

Again, true. Well earned.

But there's a less-publicized side and it has to do with how Butler plays defensively.

If there were a line, and on one side was tough, aggressive defensive play, and on the other, was dirty play, then Butler walks right up to that line, and sticks its tongue out.

Do the Bulldogs cross it? That's where the debate comes. Some coaches in the Horizon League say privately Butler more than pushes the defensive play envelope and the officials let them.

Some of that has happened in this year's NCAA tournament. Against VCU, Butler got away with more than a hold or two and hard screens. Same thing in every other tournament game it has played.

They are nasty defensively. Maybe not cheap, but nasty. It's what's interesting about Butler, these contradictory images. One wholesome, the other a team which has quietly earned a reputation as defensive bad-asses.

The Horizon is where Butler has excelled at getting away with sometimes overly physical defense. Then again, if a player gets away with a hold or a hip check or a screen that collapses a lung is that Butler's fault?

"If the refs let you play," said Butler's Alex Anglin, "the refs let you play."

Marshall added: "A lot of this talk about our defense is about expectations. People look at us and don't take us seriously. Then we come in and play hard and they're surprised."

That's possibly part of the problem here. Opponents see Butler on film or read about them in scouting reports but simply they can't prepare for the real thing. Butler smothers people and there's no way to get ready for that.

One good example of Butler's physical style (and pushing that envelope) actually came in the championship game last year when Matt Howard set a brutal pick on Duke's Kyle Singler which was so hard Singler's molars went back in time.

"Not sure if it was a legal pick," said Butler’s Zach Hahn, "but that's the kind of play Matt makes constantly."

And by saying "that kind of play," Hahn meant hustle play. Others look at "that kind of play," and say borderline dirty.

And here's an interesting note from how Butler practices. Anglin says that during their practice sessions (especially now) there aren't a lot of fouls called. Coach Brad Stevens has told the Bulldogs that at this time of year, the officials let them play, so practices should be the same way.

There are at least some in the Horizon who respect Butler's defensive prowess. This past season Howard and Ronald Nored were named to the five-man all-defensive team. It was the second straight time for Nored.

The defense flows from their confidence, and vice versa. How confident are they? Marshall called the title game against Connecticut a "very winnable game."

It'll also be a physical one because that's what Butler does. The question: How physical?

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