UConn sophomore Butler is total package

Putting past behind him, Huskies' top scorer may take versatility to NBA

College Basketball

March 17, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The question of whether Caron Butler will return to Connecticut for another season seemed as legitimate a topic as it's ever been -- he turned 22 this week, after all -- but the sophomore forward wasn't taking the bait when asked yesterday.

"I'm just trying to focus on the tournament," said Butler, whose team will play North Carolina State today in a second-round NCAA tournament East Regional game at MCI Center.

To say he's coy might be an understatement given the way his 2001-02 season has unfolded. As it happens, Butler earned Big East co-Player of the Year honors (with Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight) after averaging a team-high 20 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals and helping the Huskies to a 25-6 record.

He averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists in three games as Connecticut won the Big East tournament title, which led to a No. 2 seed in the East.

Butler is able to play four of the five positions on the floor, which poses serious matchup problems for N.C. State.

"He's so versatile," said Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek, whose team defeated Michigan State on Friday to reach today's 2:30 p.m. game. "He posts up with great size and strength. He shoots the three. He's very comfortable going off the dribble. I don't think there is one aspect of offensive basketball that he doesn't excel at."

"Obviously, Drew Gooden and Jason Williams may be there for national Player of the Year," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun told the Norwich [Conn.] Bulletin recently when asked about Butler, "but if you talk about the top 10 players in America, clearly in the last month he's been one of these players."

Even eight years doesn't dull the contrast between where he is now and where he has been. He spoke yesterday of getting to Syracuse for next week's regional semifinals, where his team would play "for higher stakes."

Eight years ago, Butler was playing for fruit or soda from the canteen at the Wisconsin juvenile detention center where he spent part of his teen-age years.

Butler ended up there when he brought a pistol and some cocaine to his high school in Racine, Wis. As a 14-year-old gang-banger who had been in previous trouble with the law, he didn't get much sympathy from a judge, who gave him a 15-month sentence.

At the Ethan Allen School in Delafield, he became serious about basketball and figured out how to deal with the physical nature of the game -- "there was a lot of hacking" -- while getting protection from other inmates who knew his family.

With the help of his mother, Mattie Paden, and a mentor, Jameel Ghuari, Butler took steps to build a better life for himself. He took classes at a local community college to prove he was ready to be readmitted to high school.

Once his high school basketball eligibility ended in 1998, he went to Maine Central Institute, a prep school in Pittsfield, Maine, where he played well enough to attract the attention of such schools as Connecticut.

"Here, I got to start all over," said Butler, relieved to be in a place where few people knew about his past. "It was a fresh start and I wanted to make the most of it."

He made an immediate impression during his freshman year at UConn, starting all but one of 29 games and averaging 15 points and eight rebounds.

Moreover, he made a commitment to immerse himself in the history of the Huskies' program, watching tapes of the school's great games, including the national title it won by beating Duke in 1999.

"Here's a guy who didn't grow up with a basket on a barn," Calhoun said, "but he believes as much in old State U. as anyone. He's not Chip Hilton, but he's really a special kid."

As a freshman, he decided to take more of a secondary role because the Huskies still had three holdovers from their national-title run and he didn't want to be a home wrecker.

But when the team had to settle for the National Invitation Tournament, Butler decided he needed to play a larger role the following season. While on the United States' 22-and-under team in Japan, he had grilled such teammates as Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, who told him that togetherness was their key to making the Final Four with Maryland.

Butler didn't see that in the 2001 Huskies.

"After practices, one player would go to Mars and another would go to Venus," he said. "Everyone went to different places and we weren't even on the same planet."

Freshman center Emeka Okafor said he ends up getting as much chiding and encouragement from Butler (and fellow sophomore Taliek Brown) as anyone, a task usually left to juniors and seniors.

"It is surprising," Okafor said. "I don't even see him as being a sophomore. He just does a great job of keeping us together."

However, his stint as a team leader would end if he decides to declare for the NBA draft.

The decision is one that he says will hinge on where he's rated, and that should be somewhere between the middle and the end of the first round.

For now, however, he said that the recent car-related death of his cousin, Kilo Butler, was a reminder to stay grounded in the present.

"I've got to let it all hang out there," he said. "I just dedicated the rest of the season to her, and I want to make the most of it."

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