“I think it helps us to play with a chip on our shoulder,” said senior guard Shawn Vanzant. “We did it last year. We hope to do it this year.”
It is a little bit tougher to be the underdog when you’ve been America’s Darlings. George Mason found that out after 2006, when a big target was placed on its collective back in almost every game it played. Butler experienced that this year and struggled with it at times.
“There was definitely more excitement when we came to town, especially in our league, this season,” Coach Brad Stevens said. “I was proud of the way our guys stayed together. How many times do you hear stories about teams coming apart after a major success when things don’t go right the next season? Our group never did that.”
It is always difficult to measure how a story like Butler’s affects those who lived it. Several years ago, a former Princeton president named William G. Bowen co-authored a remarkably short-sighted book in which he claimed that a successful athletic team has no effect on a university, financially or in terms of admissions or image. Anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes around college athletics without burying his head in a pile of academic arrogance knows that isn’t close to true.
Stevens has one statistic that kind of blows Bowen’s theory into the 19th century. “In the two years prior to last year, our Web site had a total of about 3.5 million hits each year,” he said in the hallway outside his locker room just before practice Wednesday. “Last year the Web site had 111 million hits.” He smiled. “I think we generated a little bit of extra interest with what our team did.”
Now, Butler is the UCLA of mid-majors, the team everyone wants to grow up to be like.
“I can’t lie,” said Darius James, one of ODU’s seniors. “We [mid-majors] stick together. I wanted them to win it all last year. But [Thursday] when we go out there to play them, it’s a whole different thing.”
A year ago, the Bulldogs were a number five seed going into the tournament and actually struggled to beat Murray State in the second round. “We played a lot better once we started wearing the dark (lower-seeded) uniforms,” Stevens said. “It was as if the pressure of having that high a seed was off once we got to the second week.”
Butler — the number eight seed to ODU’s nine — will be wearing the dark uniforms on Thursday. But on the back of those uniforms will be a universally acknowledged, if invisible, target.
ODU was the leading rebounding team in the country during the regular season. It has accomplished a lot in recent years.
But if it wants to be this year’s Butler it will have to beat Butler.