Triangle basketball fans need no introduction to Butler, which as a No. 5 seed made a lasting imprint on the NCAA tournament when Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt attempt at a game-winner rimmed out and allowed Duke to escape with the 2010 NCAA title in Indianapolis.
The Bulldogs returned to the title game as a No. 8 seed in 2011, losing to No. 3 Connecticut but cementing their mid-major status as a giant-killer. Nowadays, fans filling out their tournament brackets don’t hesitate to write in Butler on the next line, and the Bulldogs have responded by winning their openers in 2013 and 2015 before falling by the wayside.
When No. 9 seed Butler takes on No. 8 seed Texas Tech Thursday at 12:40 p.m. at PNC Arena, it will be the Bulldogs’ second NCAA appearance since moving from the Horizon League to the Big East in 2013. Coach Chris Holtmann says that move has changed perceptions of the program.
“I think (with) the move to the Big East, the mid-major moniker has probably fallen off as soon as we made that move, even maybe before so,” Holtmann said. “I think our league is outstanding, and I think it has prepared us well.
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“Listen, I’ve said this a number of times, and I’ve been reminded about this, and I’ve given Brad (Stevens) credit for it,” Holtmann said of the former Butler coach, now running the Boston Celtics. “He texted me on the last two Selection Sundays … well before Selection Sunday and reminds me, do not ever take this for granted.”
Roosevelt Jones, a redshirt senior guard, said “I don’t really think we’re much of a target because I still feel like there’s people that doubt us about our game whenever we come to the NCAA tournament. You know, every year, we come in we’re all picked or chosen to lose our game. ... So I really don’t feel we have a target on our back.”
Tubby’s homecoming: Tubby Smith, marking his 25th year as a college head coach and his third season at Texas Tech, is one of only two head coaches to take five different schools to the NCAA tournament. Smith shares that distinction with Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger and rates it as a more significant accomplishment than his winning the 1998 NCAA championship with Kentucky.
“If you ask me which one of those, I would like to be able to stay in one place and say, I wish we had done it in one,” Smith said.
“So to be able to do that tells me that we have a philosophy, you know, that we’ve done things the right way, because people weren’t going to hire you. They’re not going to hire you unless you were successful at the prior university. So I’m really pleased about that.
“Not to take anything away from a national championship, but I’m really honored to be able to serve all of those great institutions, Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and now Texas Tech.”
Smith, a 1973 graduate of then-High Point College and one of seven active Division I coaches with more than 500 victories, recalled coaching at Hoke County in high school and bringing his team to the Raleigh Times Invitational.
“It’s a special moment and special time to be back in North Carolina, especially in this area, coaching and bringing the Red Raiders back here and bringing my wife and family back here, too,” Smith said.
The Red Raiders (19-12) are making their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2007 under Bob Knight, and they haven’t won a game in the tournament since 2005.
So what has Smith’s message been to his team given its lengthy absence from college basketball’s grand stage?
“Enjoy the journey,” Smith said. “I think you lead by example. Hopefully they see that, in preparing whether it was the first game of the year or the last game of the year … continuity and consistency is the key.”
Enfield’s reunion: Andy Enfield, coach of the eighth-seeded Southern California Trojans, last went to the NCAA tournament three years ago when he guided Florida Gulf Coast to the regional semifinals. It marked the only time a No. 15 seed has ever reached the second weekend.
Enfield took the Southern California job a few weeks later, and he finds himself back in the postseason at the same site the 16th-seeded Eagles will face North Carolina in Thursday’s first round.
“It’s awesome they’re back in the tournament,” said Enfield, whose team’s locker room was next to Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday. “We’d love to play them in the second round – it means we won our game, too.”
The Eagles have won at least 21 games in each season under Joe Dooley, Enfield’s successor. But this marks the first time since Enfield’s departure that Florida Gulf Coast successfully navigated the Atlantic Sun tournament to earn the league’s automatic bid.
“The fact they’re here means I can see some old familiar friends we haven’t seen in a while” Enfield said. “It’s great for both of us.”
Eagles’ golden boy: The NCAA tournament isn’t Florida Gulf Coast guard Julian DeBose’s first high-level tournament in the last year.
The redshirt senior, who began his career at Rice, was part of a Kansas-heavy gold medal-winning U.S. team in the World University Games last summer.
“It was definitely a great opportunity to go over there and represent the USA, playing the teams from all around the world and seeing their different styles of play and how basketball has grown and how much people all around the world are just as good as people from America,” DeBose said.
Thursday provides a different dynamic for DeBose and his teammates. The Eagles (21-13) defeated Fairleigh Dickinson 96-65 in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday night, and landed in Raleigh at 12:20 a.m. Dooley said the team arrived at its hotel at 1:15 a.m. and that players slept in a little Wednesday to help recover for the quick turnaround.
A far sterner test awaits Florida Gulf Coast in North Carolina as it attempts to become the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in tournament history.
“I definitely think we have the talent,” DeBose said. “We’ve been working out all year. Coach has done a good job of recruiting guys he thinks can perform at any level.”
Friars seek to take next step: Ninth-seeded Providence (23-10) is making its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the first time the Friars have done so since 1972-74. Even more impressive: Providence made only two NCAA trips in the 16 years before this streak.
Nonetheless, the Friars bowed out in the first round in both of the last two years. In 2014, a Bryce Cotton-led team played its way into the field by winning the Big East tournament, then tested North Carolina before falling 79-77 in San Antonio.
Last year, Providence had the misfortune of drawing Dayton in nearby Columbus, Ohio, dropping a 66-53 decision to the Flyers. This time around, the Friars get a virtual coin flip in an 8/9 game against Southern California, and a postseason triumph would represent an obvious step forward.
“This is our fifth year here running this organization, and to continue moving our program forward, we need to try to advance in this tournament to continue to build our brand and build our program,” coach Ed Cooley said “All the pressure’s on me, not so much the players, to try to get our program to continue to be one of the elite schools in the country.”
Cooley has the benefit of two of the Big East’s best players, point guard Kris Dunn and forward Ben Bentil. The duo account for nearly half of the Friars’ scoring this season and should be Providence’s offensive centerpieces Thursday. But Cooley knows his team must be efficient and opportunistic on offense against the Trojans to make it to the round of 32 for the first time since 1997.
NCAA Tournament in Raleigh
When: Thursday and Saturday
Thursday’s first round
No. 8 Texas Tech vs. No. 9 Butler, 12:40 p.m., TruTV
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 Hampton, 3:10 p.m., TruTV
No. 1 UNC vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson or Florida Gulf Coast, 7:20 p.m., TBS
No. 8 USC vs. No. 9 Providence, 9:50 p.m., TBS