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Butler faces different road in this year's tourney

Second-best just won't cut it for Butler this year.

Last year's NCAA tournament darlings and defending runner-ups are back with an even bigger goal: Winning the whole darn thing.

"You don't come in looking to win one game or to make it to the Sweet 16," senior guard Zach Hahn said Tuesday. "Our goal is to play in Houston at the end of the tournament."

Clearly, this is not the same team that captured America's hearts with its Final Four run and came within a half-court heave of beating Duke in the title game.

Gordon Hayward left after his sophomore season for the NBA. Avery Jukes and defensive stopper Willie Veasley graduated. Point guard Ronald Nored has been replaced in the starting lineup by senior Shawn Vanzant.

But there are plenty of similarities.

The Bulldogs still rely on lockdown defense, taking care of the basketball and making 3-pointers. They still have undersized forward Matt Howard leading the charge inside and Shelvin Mack taking care of things on the perimeter.

And like last year, college basketball analysts are already writing off Butler.

Many believe Old Dominion (27-6), the Colonial Athletic Association champion, will use its rebounding prowess and "home-court" advantage to knock out the Bulldogs (23-9) in Thursday's game in Washington. A year ago, many experts called UTEP the trendy first-round upset pick. Butler won that one 77-59.

Last year, Butler entered the tourney on a 20-game winning streak after claiming both the Horizon League regular-season and tourney titles. This time, the Bulldogs won nine straight to earn a share of the regular-season league crown, the tourney championship and a school-record fifth straight NCAA bid.

And they've done it the same way — by holding 10 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points and half of those to less than 60.

Coach Brad Stevens calls it a winning formula.

"I think this team is playing its best basketball at the right time," he said. "It took some time to become a good team at both ends of the floor, but the commitment has always been there and now we're back where we want to be. The (Butler) teams that have done the best in the NCAA tournament have played their best at the end of the season, so I feel good about it."

That's not good news for Old Dominion or anyone else in the Southeast Region because Butler just spent an entire season going through what amounted to an NCAA tourney-type environment.

They were the feature attraction at every venue in the Horizon League. Valparaiso fans even rushed the floor in late January after an 85-79 overtime win. And the Bulldogs served as either the model or target everywhere they went.

Louisville asked Butler to be the first opponent at its new arena. Duke agreed to a title game rematch in East Rutherford, N.J. Stanford became the first Pac-10 team to visit Hinkle Fieldhouse in more than four decades and CBS televised a game from the Bulldogs' home court for the first time.

Around Indiana, Butler was still all the rage.

"I think that (run) inspired us. I know it did me," said Jake Kelly, a guard on Indiana State's NCAA-bound team. "It was a mid-major playing for a national championship and it was an in-state school, so it makes it possible to think we can do that."

Things didn't go according to script this season, though.

Butler lost three straight games in late January and early February, the longest losing streak of Howard's four-year career. Three players, including Howard and Nored, missed games with concussions. Mack couldn't finish several early season games because of cramps. Even Stevens left one game because of an eye injury.

The Bulldogs persevered and now the players and coaches believe they're ready to make another NCAA run.

"I think we're guarding our butts off, and that's what has to carry over into the tournament. To hold Milwaukee to 44 points, I think they were averaging 70-something, was incredible," Nored said, referring to the conference championship game.

What Butler won't have this week is its mascot.

NCAA officials have banned Blue II, an English bulldog, from the arena in Washington. Tourney spokesman David Worlock explained live animals are not permitted at early-round sites because of limited space and quick turnarounds for other events.

Blue II was given an exemption for last year's Final Four, and Worlock said, it could happen again if the Bulldogs make it to Houston.

"It stinks," Hahn said. "Hopefully, we'll get it done for him and maybe we can throw him a bone."

But, of course, all they really want is to bring home the trophy they missed out on last year.

"That's definitely the goal, no doubt about it," Nored said. "Our mentality is to go out and play our hardest and our best, and I think if we do that, we'll win."