`Cinderella' Butler is having quite a ball

Round-of-16 run, chance vs. Okla. especially sweet for team snubbed last year

March 28, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ALBANY, N.Y. - By now, in the second week of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, Butler's Darnell Archey has heard enough comparisons to the tiny Indiana high school that inspired the basketball movie classic Hoosiers.

But when a bus driver taking the Bulldogs to the Pepsi Arena yesterday began pointing out the "skyscrapers" of Albany, it was almost too much for Archey to endure.

"He was talking about how big the city of Albany was," Archey said. "I wanted to say, `We're from Indianapolis; it might be a little bit bigger than Albany.' He might have thought we were from Milan."

Like it or not, Butler is trying to emulate Milan - the tiny Indiana school that won a high school state championship long ago - in the East Regional here. Indeed, when the 12th-seeded Bulldogs (27-5) play top-seeded Oklahoma (26-6) in an East semifinal tonight, they will be big underdogs and sentimental favorites.

If Cinderella's slipper fits, Butler is more than willing to wear it.

"I'd much rather be dealing with the Cinderella tag than be tagged the team that got snubbed," said Butler center Joel Cornette. "Hopefully, we'll keep dancing all the way to the French Quarter in New Orleans. We've got a lot of work to do until then. We really don't want to take this slipper off yet."

Two wins in Albany as the lowest surviving seed in the field of 65 will send Butler to New Orleans as the first team from a mid-major conference to reach the Final Four. To do that, the Bulldogs not only will have to beat Oklahoma, but also the winner of tonight's second game between third-seeded Syracuse (26-5) and 10th-seeded Auburn (23-11).

But then, look who they've already upset: fifth-seeded Mississippi State and fourth-seeded Louisville.

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson protests that the Cinderella label doesn't do Butler justice.

"I can see Cinderella beating Mississippi State, but Cinderella doesn't come back 24 hours later and beat Louisville," Sampson said. "Butler is almost a victim of its own success. They have a great system and four seniors who have won over 100 games in their careers."

Butler vs. Oklahoma - Horizon League vs. Big 12 - is not the mismatch it would seem. The game likely will be decided by Oklahoma's defense vs. Butler's three-point shooters.

Brandon Miller, the catalyst and point guard in Butler's spread-the-floor system, is shooting .433 from the arc. Archey, who finished Louisville by hitting eight of nine three-point attempts, is shooting .406.

Two questions, then, beg to be answered.

Has Butler played as good a perimeter defense as Oklahoma offers?

And will Hollis Price be able to play through the pain of a groin injury?

Price played a total of 41 minutes in last week's two games and scored eight points. Both Price and his teammates insist he is good to go, but Sampson sounded a note of dissent.

"He's probably not where we would like him to be, but that's how this time of the year is," Sampson said. "In the tournament, you have to be good enough and lucky enough. Maryland should not be playing Michigan State [tonight]. UNC-Wilmington should have won that game. Gonzaga very easily could be in this thing. You have to be good and a little bit lucky in this thing."

Butler had no luck at all last year when a 25-5 record - including wins over Big Ten teams Indiana and Purdue - wasn't good enough to get the Bulldogs in the tournament.

This year, Butler's second-year coach Todd Lickliter said it wasn't enough for his Bulldogs just to get into the tournament.

"If that's all they wanted to do, they wouldn't be able to play and compete against Mississippi State," he said.

Instead, Butler has become the latest mid-major school to make a Sweet 16 run.

"We may not look like the greatest basketball team in the world," Cornette said, "but we feel good about what we've got. It's gotten us this far. We're hoping it carries us a little farther."

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