Coach Brad Stevens has a 56-10 record with two NCAA tournament appearances… (Darron Cummings/associated…)
The upgrades have come slowly to Butler's 71-year-old Hinkle Fieldhouse, and not all have been embraced by a coaching staff that believes a solid foundation has little need for improvement.
Take the new scoreboard that was unveiled during former coach Todd Lickliter's tenure, which for the first time listed individual players' points and fouls.
According to David Woods, who as a journalist and author has chronicled the Butler men's basketball team's improbable success, Lickliter balked at the idea because it was diametrically opposed to what's known as "The Butler Way" -- five principles intended to serve as guideposts for life as well as sport. Attributed to Tony Hinkle, the coach for whom Butler's storied arena is named, they are humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
More than any single player or coach, "The Butler Way" is credited with catapulting Butler from plucky mid-major to national contender in recent years. And it was paid homage by the 1986 movie "Hoosiers," which was inspired by tiny Milan High School's 1954 Indiana state championship and filmed partly at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Ever since, Butler has been regarded as a modern-day Milan, with its victories over national powers cast as David-vs.-Goliath triumphs.
All of this forms the powerful mythology that No. 15 Georgetown (6-0) will tackle Tuesday in facing its first ranked opponent of the season -- No. 22 Butler (6-2) -- in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.
After three seasons of sustained excellence capped by NCAA tournament appearances, Butler has arguably outgrown the label of upstart mid-major. But for many pundits, the Butler-as-Cinderella story line is too compelling to revise, particularly with the current college basketball season culminating with a Final Four in Indianapolis. The prospect of a local underdog contending for the NCAA championship is simply irresistible.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III says he has seen too much of Butler on television and videotape to make the mistake of underestimating them. Moreover, Thompson argues that "mid-major" labels are overused and irrelevant.
"Maybe they're still a [media] darling," Thompson said of Butler. "But I don't think anybody looks at them as Cinderella. The world knows they're a damn good basketball team and not the uninvited ones to the ball."
Like Georgetown, Butler is a relatively small, urban university with no big-time football program to bankroll its athletic department. Its teams also have a bulldog mascot. But Georgetown boasts the more decorated basketball pedigree, as well as an undergraduate enrollment nearly twice the size (about 7,000 to Butler's 3,897) and an endowment nearly six times richer ($833 million to Butler's $140 million).
While Hinkle Fieldhouse won't play a role in Tuesday's first meeting between the schools, it reveals much about Butler, which has largely sat out the athletic department arms race.
In lieu of luxury suites, Hinkle Fieldhouse has windows near the ceiling that make it feel like a basketball cathedral when the sunlight streams in at daybreak, right about the time Coach Brad Stevens's 6:15 a.m. practices begin.
"It's an unbelievable place to call home," says Stevens. "The tradition and the history -- you can feel it going in."
An Indiana native with an economics degree from DePauw, Stevens loved basketball so much that he quit a promising marketing job at Eli Lilly at age 22 to be an unpaid volunteer on Thad Matta's Butler staff in 2000. From there, he worked his way into a salaried job arranging the team's travel. After six seasons as an assistant, he was tapped to take the reins when Lickliter left for Iowa following Butler's 2007 appearance in the round of 16.
In his first two seasons, Stevens compiled a 56-10 record and led the Bulldogs to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances by preaching teamwork above all and stressing few turnovers, tough defense and a high shooting percentage from three-point range.
Says Woods, author of "The Butler Way: The Best of Butler Basketball": "Despite limited resources and small enrollment, they have hit upon a formula of team-oriented basketball that has allowed them to compete and sometimes beat the best teams in the nation."
Thompson, who adheres to a similar coaching philosophy, says he has been struck by the unselfishness of Butler's players, all of whom returned from last season.
"You watch them play, and you feel that they are a team in every sense of the word," Thompson says. "They make it so difficult to play against because they go a great job of working together at both ends of the court."
Butler, which finished last season ranked 22nd with a 26-6 record, has been tested more rigorously than Georgetown entering Tuesday's game, having played six of its eight games on the road and facing two ranked teams. Both of those games, against Minnesota (then No. 22) and Clemson (then No. 19), ended in losses.
But for schools in mid-major conferences such as the Horizon League, the surest way to raise their national profile is to take on -- and topple -- tough opponents in early-season nonconference games.
Says Stevens: "The beautiful thing about basketball is, you put five guys out on the floor, the score starts at 0-0, and you'll be successful or not successful. The last thing we worry about are labels."