Michael Conroy, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — The pep band played, the video boards went back up inside Hinkle Fieldhouse and everyone was talking about the possibility of another Butler player turning pro early.
Just like last year.
Two days after losing their second straight national championship game, several thousand fans turned out at the Bulldogs' home arena to thank the players, coaches and managers, who were already plotting a third straight run.
"That's what we'll be playing for," point guard Ronald Nored said with a smile as he signed autographs Wednesday. "I hate that we didn't get it this year, but we achieved a lot and we've got a lot of guys coming back that had that national championship game experience."
A year ago, it was a similar scene. With sunshine cutting through the windows of the historic fieldhouse, Mayor Greg Ballard, Gov. Mitch Daniels, Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone, athletic director Barry Collier and university president Bobby Fong all delivered messages to the team, though Daniels sent his via video Wednesday.
Even the theme was familiar.
"Though you didn't win Monday night, you won the hearts of all of us by reminding us what's right and good about college sports," LeCrone told the crowd, which erupted into applause.
Well, flight delays Tuesday postponed Butler's planned celebration by one day.
And coach Brad Stevens used the 45-minute ceremony as a pseudo-Senior Day ceremony.
Irritated eyes forced Stevens to leave at halftime of Butler's final home game, causing him to miss the postgame festivities. He also told fans who showed up for an impromptu pep rally the night Butler won the regional title he wanted a second chance to talk about his five seniors.
That came Wednesday and he saved star forward Matt Howard for last.
"For four years, what these guys watched was a guy who never took one day off, ever," Stevens said. "Some days, very few, he didn't come out on top, but most days he did."
That drew a standing ovation from the crowd and Howard's coaches and teammates, who watched Howard take this program to its first two national title games — although the Bulldogs joined Ohio State in 1961-62, Houston in 1983-84 and Michigan in 1992-93 as the only teams to finish as back-to-back runners-up.
Howard wasn't the only big name making waves Wednesday.
Many are wondering whether shooting guard Shelvin Mack will return next season or leave for the NBA draft. Last week, Nored said Mack promised him that they would finish their careers together — something Mack acknowledged after the rally.
"You could say that," Mack said.
But Stevens has already begun the process of collecting information and with many analysts projecting Mack to go in the second round and the uncertain labor situation possibly costing the league games next season, Mack hasn't decided what to do.
"You've got to use all your resources and make the best decision," he said. "It will be a long process."
Not that long, given that players must declare for the draft by April 24. They'll have to decided whether to stay in the draft or get out by May 8.
From Stevens to Nored, though, nobody on this team is going to push Mack in one direction or the other.
Instead, they're content to let him make his own decision — as Gordon Hayward did last year — and defy the experts again by reaching another title game with or without Mack. And with or without the resources other schools have to stay competitive.
"Doing it one year might be described as a Cinderella story," Fong said. "Doing it again argues that doing it as a team counts every bit as much as being rich."
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