NCAA tournament: Pittsburgh isn’t taking Butler lightly

They grew up 60 miles apart, one a bit chunky, the other a bit scrawny. But as the best big men on their respective high school basketball teams, they were teenage heroes in their Indiana home towns.

From their first showdown in ninth grade to their last as graduating seniors, Matt Howard’s team from Connersville High beat conference rival Gary McGhee’s bunch from Highland Senior High in Anderson all four times.

They’ll face off for the first time since then on Saturday at 7:10 p.m. at Verizon Center. This time, McGhee will have the upper hand, at least on paper, when his top-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers face Howard and eighth-seeded Butler for a chance to advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 out of the Southeast Region.

“We’ve had a lot of battles over the years,” said Howard, Butler’s 6-foot-8, 230-pound starting forward. McGhee “is huge; he’s a very imposing figure. He really plays hard, and that has been true in every game I played against him.”

Said McGhee, Pitt’s 6-11, 250-pound starting center: “There’s probably been a lot of changes in both our games. . . . Now we’re different players, both improved tremendously, so it’s going to be different being on the court tomorrow.”

It’s tempting to cast Saturday’s game in David-vs.-Goliath terms, with Butler (24-9), the plucky mid-major, taking on Pittsburgh (28-5), the battle-hardened regular season champion of the mighty Big East.

But the story line doesn’t stand up, as anyone who watched Butler mow down top-seeded Syracuse, No. 2 seed Kansas State and fifth-seeded Michigan State en route to last season’s NCAA championship game can attest.

Though Butler lost standout Gordon Hayward to the NBA, it returns four starters from that NCAA runner-up team.

Moreover, in advancing to last year’s championship game, Butler reached a stage of the NCAA tournament that Pittsburgh never has. In 23 NCAA tournament appearances, the Panthers have never advanced beyond the region final.

In back-to-back news conferences Friday, the players from each team took turns discounting the relevance of their respective seedings. Neither wanted to be perceived as the favorite; neither sought the label of underdog.

As Butler’s Shelvin Mack noted, most top Division I players compete against one another as youngsters on the AAU circuit or in summer leagues as collegians. So they don’t necessarily see the great disparity in college teams that the NCAA tournament seeds suggest.

“It’s not that much of a difference,” said Mack, asked about the gap between the major powers and so-called mid-majors.

Mack, for one, played alongside Pitt’s junior guard Ashton Gibbs when the two competed on a USA Basketball team for Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon.

“They’re just a bigger version of us, we believe,” Mack said of Pittsburgh.

Butler has gotten far by playing bigger than its modest size. Thursday’s 60-58 victory over ninth-seeded Old Dominion was a case in point.

With ODU boasting the nation’s best rebounding differential, it was imperative that Butler minimize the imbalance, using every player to box out and keep the Monarchs’ big men off the glass.

The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle outright, 32-29, with junior forward Garrett Butcher coming off the bench for five offensive rebounds alone. As a result, Butler scored 19 second-chance points to ODU’s 18.

“We take that as a challenge when we’re playing a team that’s really good at rebounding: We want to see if we can outrebound them,” said Howard, who grabbed five rebounds to go along with his 15 points — including the buzzer-beating game-winner. “I’m sure a lot of people didn’t expect [that].”

Against Pittsburgh’s taller lineup, Coach Brad Stevens believes his Bulldogs must rebound even better — particularly on the defensive end.

Even if Pittsburgh concedes it holds the advantage over Butler in virtually every quantifiable category — including size, quickness and athleticism — the Panthers feel that the Bulldogs have an edge they can’t match, having captivated college basketball fans nationwide last year with their unlikely championship run.

“They’re basically America’s team now,” Panthers senior guard Brad Wanamaker said. “It’s going to be a battle.”

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