The Butler Bulldogs were so close to pulling off the St. Patrick’s Day surprise on that March afternoon in 2000. It was overtime of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the Bulldogs had a one-point lead over the higher-seeded, heavily favored Florida Gators. David was about to slay Goliath, but then Mike Miller hit that jump shot as time ran out.
One dream died. Another dream lived on.
Butler might have been George Mason six years earlier if only that shot had clanked instead of swished. The Bulldogs might have sipped champagne from Cinderella’s slippers and made it to the Final Four except Miller made the shot heard ‘round the Gator Nation to propel Florida to a 69-68 win in overtime. Heartbroken Butler went home, left to wonder what might have been. Jubilant Florida marched on with a dream that didn’t end until the national championship game when Michigan State snuffed out the Gators.
It’s seven years later and Butler (29-6) is trying to elbow its way to the top of the NCAA heap again. The Bulldogs are trying to become this year’s George Mason, last year’s Cinderella that lived the big dream all the way to the Final Four only to find Florida standing in the way (Friday, 7 p.m., Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis, CBS TV).
For the Gators (31-5), plenty has changed in the seven years since that last close encounter with Butler. That win, propelled by that shot, is a milestone in Florida basketball history. Nobody will ever know if the Florida basketball program would have grown to its present level where the Gators are the NCAA champs trying to become the first team since Duke (1991-92) and repeat without Mike Miller’s shot to win that game with Butler, but it’s significance is enough that Coach Billy Donovan shows the highlights to recruits when they visit the University of Florida.
“Back in 2000 when Mike Miller hit the shot against Butler, that’s one of the highlight plays you seen when you first come here on your visit and Coach shows you all the plays,” said Corey Brewer, Florida’s wiry, 6-9 small forward who scored 38 points in the Gators’ wins over Jackson State and Purdue in rounds one and two of this year’s NCAA Tournament in New Orleans this past weekend. “You see that shot and you want to follow in their footsteps.”
Florida has made it to nine straight NCAA Tournaments overall, seven in a row since the 2000 season. In the last three seasons, the Gators are 18-1 in postseason play. They’ve won nine straight SEC Tournament games, three straight SEC Tournaments, and they’ve won their last eight NCAA Tournament games including last year’s 6-0 sprint to the national championship.
Without Mike Miller’s shot to beat Butler, we can only speculate if the Gators could have gone on to the level of success they’ve enjoyed. What if the shot had missed? What if Butler had hit two free throws with nine seconds left to expand the lead to three points? That would have required a three-pointer by the Gators just to tie the game and send it to a second overtime.
The year before, the Gators were the team with the one-point lead and Gonzaga’s Casey Calvary got a tip-in at the buzzer to beat the Gators, 73-72, in the West Regional semifinals. What if Calvary’s tip had missed and Florida had won that game? Would the Gators have won the next game and advanced to the Final Four?
“There are certain elements that happen in the course of a game that are out of your control,” said Donovan Monday afternoon. “Those missed free throws and Mike Miller making that shot and Casey Calvary’s tip in … let’s say the ball didn’t bounce where it bounced and it bounced in a different direction … the game’s over and sometimes those things happen.”
Things do happen. Florida went on to the NCAA title game in 2000 and a continued string of never-before-achieved successes. Before Billy Donovan, Florida’s success was sporadic. Since Billy Donovan, and in particular, since that win over Butler in 2000, Florida’s success has been consistent. Before that win, the Gators were the new kids on the block and everybody thought Donovan would leave soon for a better job and the Florida program would dip back to its sporadic levels of the past. Donovan stayed, the Gators kept on winning and now Florida is viewed as one of the elite basketball programs in the country.
Florida is top of the heap, a program that is under the microscope because of its success.
Butler? You don’t need a microscope to chart the Bulldogs’ success but because they haven’t had that breakthrough win they’ve toiled almost unappreciated in the Horizon League. That’s not to say there hasn’t been success. They’ve been very good even with coaching changes since the Mike Miller dream-ender in 2000.
Barry Collier left after that game in 2000 to become the coach at Nebraska. His summer of 2006 resignation shocked the Nebraska folks. He’s back at Butler now as the athletic director. Collier was succeeded by Thad Matta, who left Butler after one year for Xavier. Now he’s the head coach at Ohio State, the number one seed in the NCAA South Region.
Todd Lickliter is the coach at Butler now. He’s 131-60 in the last six years. He’s had good teams but this is clearly his best. To call the Bulldogs David and Florida Goliath might seem appropriate given Florida’s status as the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and the fact the Gators are the national champs going for two in a row. At least that’s how the national media will try to hype this game in the next four days.
Billy Donovan doesn’t see the Bulldogs as Little David, however. He sees Butler as a team quite capable of going toe-to-toe with Florida and any other team in the country.
“They are a terrific team, a team that’s had a great year all season long,” said Donovan. “They’ve played against a lot of high level competition early in the season. They played in a very good league.”
The good wins include road warrior efforts at Notre Dame, Tennessee and Gonzaga, all of whom were nationally ranked at the time. Butler’s only loss to a ranked team was to Southern Illinois, which is also in the Sweet 16.
There are also wins over Old Dominion and nationally-ranked Maryland to get to the Sweet 16 and put the Bulldogs back on cloud nine where they were before they unexplainably lost to Indiana State, Illinois-Chicago, Loyola (Ill) and Wright State (twice).
But now that they’re back on cloud nine, they want to stay. They want to burst through and do this year what might have been in 2000. The only thing standing in the way is Florida.
Donovan knows the Gators will get Butler’s best shot. The Gators get everybody’s best shot since they are the champs, but he knows Butler’s best shot could be lethal given the style of defense the Bulldogs play. In a lot of ways, they are similar to Purdue — undersized, but quick and physical. Butler goes nine-deep in its rotations, but the tallest players that see any kind of playing time are 6-7 Drew Streicher and 6-7 Brian Ligon.
“They are a very physical team defensively,” said Donovan. “They do a great job on post defense. They do a real good job of trying to dislodge you off the block. They try to make sure your post catches are off the block. They do a great job of helping and playing help defense. I wouldn’t say they’re a team that’s out there pressuring from 94 feet but where their pickup point is, they’re very physical, they’re very aggressive and they’re very quick and good with their hands.”
In other words, Purdue all over again except that Donovan says Butler has a few unique twists with their defense that require extra preparation.
“They are very good defensively with the way they play,” he said. “It is a little bit of a unique style that we have to get prepared for. Playing on Friday gives us enough time to break down film, try to get prepared and come up with what we can do in a few days of practice.”
The ideal for Butler is a game that is in the 130-point range. The Bulldogs work the shot clock with a lot of ball movement and then load up from the three-point line. They launch about 24 three-pointers a game and they average making 8-9 of the long range bombs.
It is a success formula that has been followed since Collier’s days as head coach — play tough defense, shoot the three-ball, and milk the clock. It is a success formula that almost worked in 2000 and one that Butler hopes will be Florida’s undoing Friday night.
In 2000, it came down to one shot. One shot propelled Florida forward and kept Florida on a path of unprecedented success. One shot kept the Butler Bulldogs laboring un-noticed in the Horizon League. Donovan remembers the game and he understands how winning that game was one of many dominoes that have continued to fall for the Florida basketball program.
“I don’ think there’s any question that advancing helps your program and does a lot of great things for you,” said Donovan. “You also realize that when you’re in a game like that when it’s over with how fragile it all is, the room and margin for error is so small.”
Even though Florida is the top seed in the tournament and favored to beat Butler Friday night, the margin of error remains quite small. Each game into the NCAA Tournament the road narrows considerably. For Florida to repeat, Butler stands in the way.
For Butler to break through and become a household word, not the team that everybody refers to as “The Butler Did It”, it will take a win over Florida. There is the motivation to knock off number one and perhaps there is the motivation of what might have been if only Mike Miller’s shot hadn’t found the bottom of the net seven years ago.
It’s enough of a factor that Billy Donovan is making sure nobody in the Florida program takes the Bulldogs lightly.
“We have a lot of respect for them,” said Donovan. “We understand how good they are.”