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Butler's future still looks bright despite loss

Butler spent a whole year plotting its Hollywood ending.

The Bulldogs expected to play for a national championship. They expected to bring home the trophy that eluded them last season. And they expected to achieve all that despite their midseason stumbles.

Now, after a second straight title game loss, the Bulldogs will have to settle for being the gold standard for the so-called mid-majors.

"(Butler coach) Brad (Stevens) has done an incredible job," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said after winning his third national title Monday night. "Their kids compete. They run their offense full speed. They were a magnificent opponent."

Eleven other tourney foes over the last two seasons know exactly what Calhoun means.

The Bulldogs' list of victims over the past two postseasons includes Florida of the Southeastern Conference, Kansas State of the Big 12, Wisconsin and Michigan State of the Big Ten and Syracuse of Calhoun's own Big East.

But for the second straight April, Butler's players and coaches went home dejected.

The Bulldogs' first loss in two months, ending a 14-game winning streak, puts them on the short list of back-to-back national runner-ups. The others: Ohio State with Jerry Lucas in 1961-62, Houston with Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983-84 and Michigan with the Fab Five in 1992-93.

And while Monday night's title game will go down as one of the ugliest in history because of Butler's record-low field goal percentage (18.8), the team has already won over college basketball fans by proving their run to the 2010 championship game was no fluke.

Along they way, the Bulldogs staved off elimination in the seemingly impossible situations.

There was Matt Howard's buzzer-beater over Old Dominion and the wacky finish against Pittsburgh. Shelvin Mack and Howard helped the Bulldogs survive Wisconsin's late scoring flurry, and freshmen Khyle Marshall and Chrishawn Hopkins delivered the big plays to force overtime against the Gators.

Then came the showdown with Virginia Commonwealth and, finally, the breakdown against UConn.

"It's really hard to put that into words right now 'cause, we wanted a little bit more," Howard, the senior, said after Monday's loss. "Maybe at some point I can look back and be proud of what this group has accomplished."

The greatest tribute to Howard, one of the best players in school history, would be continuing the success.

Butler will lose five seniors who took the program to unprecedented heights by teaching their teammates how to win — and represent the school — The Butler Way.

"They're just good guys. People at Butler really like 'em, not because they're basketball players, because they're just good guys," said Stevens, the Bulldogs coach.

Don't count out the Bulldogs (28-10) next year, either.

If shooting guard Shelvin Mack returns, as expected, he and 6-foot-11 Andrew Smith will form a strong foundation on which to build. Point guard Ronald Nored, who started in 2009 and 2010, will likely reclaim his starting job. Three-point specialist Chase Stigall also will be back.

The Bulldogs will likely put Marshall and Hopkins in the rotation, too, and Stevens will have more size and more depth with 6-7 Garrett Butcher and 6-9 Erik Fromm.

Perhaps the most important return would be Stevens. He's led the Bulldogs to four straight Horizon League regular-season titles, four straight tourney appearances and consecutive title games. The 34-year-old coach is 11-4 all-time in tourney play, and with his stock rising rapidly, he doesn't appear to be in any hurry to leave.

"You hear people say this all the time, that the grass is greener somewhere else," Stevens said Sunday. "I think we recognize the grass is very green at Butler. I've said this many times. We're happy."

With a deep, experienced core in place, Stevens and a little luck, who knows, maybe they'll get another chance to finally deliver that storybook ending.

"This group has obviously been able to do something that, you know, we've never done before," Howard said. "I think we've got really good players that really believe in the system. We've got great coaches that always have us prepared to play. When all the players buy in, and you believe in each other, I think you can achieve a lot of things."