SALT LAKE CITY —
Some things, I just have to ask. Like the time I unwisely asked a speed cop if it was cabbage and garlic soup I smelled on his breath.
Wednesday, I struck again, this time asking Butler University forward Willie Veasley if he felt people expected the Bulldogs to be scared, intimidated or otherwise cowed at facing No. 1 seeded Syracuse in the West Regional.
But the look he gave me wasn't angry; more like amused.
Intimidation is what happens when you see Mike Tyson in your driveway. Or when you're out of your league — although Butler, in fact, is. The Bulldogs are playing Syracuse, regular season champion of the Big East, which is pretty much out of everyone's league.
Syracuse was ranked No. 1 part of this year.
But ask Butler if it's intimidated and the answer is, Not on your BCS-loving life.
"I definitely think that since we're a smaller school and Syracuse is a No. 1 seed and was ranked No. 1 and from the Big East, people kind of expect us to be intimidated," said Veasley. "But that's not the case. Basketball is basketball and we feel we can play with anybody."
The NCAA Tournament marches on, today, with Syracuse and Butler meeting in the 5:07 p.m. (MDT) game, followed by Xavier vs. Kansas State. On paper, Butler has little to no chance. It's not a big, rich school. It doesn't have a single blue chip recruit. It doesn't produce NBA players, it generates business executives and broadcasters. It hasn't produced an NBA player in over half a century.
It doesn't have much name recognition, despite making the Sweet 16 three times in the last eight years.
It's safe to say the Bulldogs are respected in a Davidson/St. Joseph's/George Mason sort of way. You know the type. The scrappy little team everyone wants to see in the Final Four; the long shot that pundits love to call a "mid-major," which is like calling a banana a mid-major fruit.
It's just a fruit, and under the right circumstances, it's wonderful.
Butler does have several things going for it. It enters with the longest win streak in the nation, 22 games. It won nearly 70 percent of its games in the last decade, which included eight 20-win seasons and eight postseason tournament bids. It has won at least one game in five of its last six NCAA appearances. Its home court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, was the site of the climactic scene in "Hoosiers."
The Bulldogs got this far in the tourney by earning an easy 18-point victory over UTEP and a not-so-easy two-pointer over Murray State. Not exactly a killer lineup, but still, Syracuse can't afford to take the fifth-seeded Bulldogs lightly. They are 30-4, having dispatched, among others, Ohio State, Xavier and Siena — all teams that made the NCAA field, two of which are still playing. The Bulldogs also played Northwestern, Minnesota, UCLA and Clemson.
They schedule good competition from serious conferences.
So it was, Wednesday, I tried to determine the intimidation factor among Butler players and coaches. As far as I could tell after visiting the locker room and watching practice, it was approximately one-50th of one percent.
Asked if this were a pivotal moment in Butler's history, which could take it from a small school darling to noted basketball power, coach Brad Stevens replied, "We don't really think about that. We respect every opponent and hope we've earned the respect of every opponent we've played."
He added, "They're going to have to beat us; we're not going to beat ourselves."2 comments on this story
Not exactly the kind of talk you hear from a frightened team.
Asked whether, with the Final Four in Butler's home town of Indianapolis, the Bulldogs seemed destined for history, Stevens replied without hesitation: "We've never won a game based on destiny. We've won games based on our preparation."
Confidently but modestly speaking, of course.