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KRAVITZ: This time around, Butler is the big dog, and MTSU is the underdog with big ideas

Once, fourth-seeded Butler was the plucky upstart, the no-name kids from Lord-knows-where, playing out of something called the Horizon League.
Butler coach Chris Holtmann stands in front of players on the bench during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Villanova, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Villanova, Pa. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

MILWAUKEE (WTHR) - The shoe is on the other foot now.

Once, fourth-seeded Butler was the plucky upstart, the no-name kids from Lord-knows-where, playing out of something called the Horizon League. Nobody knew if they were fish or fowl, at least not until the NCAA Tournament, at which time Butler announced itself as the mother of all giant killers, reaching the NCAA final two years in a row.

Now, they’re the big boys, the far higher seed than their second-round opponents, 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee State, a program that wants to become Butler just the way Butler once wanted to become the Gonzaga of the Midwest.

“It’s been a goal of mine for a while,’’ said MTSU coach Kermit Davis. “And when I took over 15 years ago, Gonzaga – I used to be the coach at Idaho – so I saw when Gonzaga played at a place with 2200 (fans). Then they hired Dan Monson and the rest is history. Really, I’ve had such great respect for Butler from afar because they do it at our level in such a way with integrity, with athletes and academics.

“There was a stat last year, there were seven teams in the tournament to win a game and have 100 percent graduation rate. We were one of them, Butler was one of them, Duke, Notre Dame, Kansas, I think Iowa. To be on the same footing as those guys and just what they’ve done with sustainability is something that we’re sure striving for. We’re not there yet by any means. We’ve got a lot of hard work in front of us.’’

Before Davis spoke to the media, I touched base with MTSU’s athletic director, Chris Massaro, who also pointed to Butler, along with Gonzaga, VCU and Wichita State as smaller schools who made their bones in the NCAA Tournament and became household names nationally.

“We’ve benchmarked ourselves constantly with those schools, and one of those benchmarks is success in the NCAA Tournament,’’ Massaro said. “That’s what really can be the tipping point. You look at Butler with the two straight trips to the national final. Wichita State in the Final Four. VCU, their consistency and a Final Four. We would like to push our way to the Sweet Sixteen; this is a chance to get there, play (the regional) in our home state and really make a statement state-wide.

"It’s so hard to calculate what this kind of exposure can mean to a school like ours, but yesterday, our university counted over a hundred million social media hits. Our applications are up 15 percent. Now, there are other reasons for that besides basketball, but basketball is definitely a contributing factor.’’

Come Saturday night, the Blue Raiders don’t just want to emulate Butler, they want to beat Butler, and honestly, if you’ve seen them play this season and saw them undress Minnesota in the NCAA opener, you know there’s a chance that might happen.

In fact, Butler coach Chris Holtmann went full-on Lou Holtz Friday afternoon, lauding MTSU like they were one step below John Wooden’s dynasty teams at UCLA. Granted, they’re good, very good, winners of 31 games, a team so good, they were actually favored by the oddsmakers to beat Minnesota in the tournament opener – which they did.

“Listen, I mean there’s no question, this is a Final Four caliber team we’re playing,’’ Holtmann said Friday. “I heard people say that, but when you’re coaching your own team, you don’t have a chance to really watch other teams as much as you’d like to. Now that you’ve had a chance to study them, there’s no question they’re a Final Four caliber team. This is as good as any team we’ve played in the second round in my tenure.’’

Holtmann is already rolling out the time-worn “people are picking us to lose’’ trope, which, while tiresome, also happens to be true. Middle Tennessee State, which beat Michigan State in the first round of last year’s tournament before losing in the second round to Syracuse, is a very trendy pick to come out of this first weekend. And for good reason. They are as physical and athletic as any team Butler has faced all season, and run a 1-3-1 defense that drives opponents to distraction.

Certainly, it flummoxed Minnesota.

But here’s where Butler figures to fare better than the Gophers: The Dawgs commit the eighth-lowest number of turnovers in the country, 10.2 per game, and have shown, time and time again, that they can handle any and all sorts of pressure thrown their way.

In past NCAA Tournaments, fans who showed up to root for other teams found themselves falling in love with tiny Butler, cheering them on in places like San Jose and Salt Lake City. The shoe, though, it’s on the other foot now. Now Butler is the behemoth, the second-place finisher in the mighty Big East, the team who, by seed, is expected to win. And Middle Tennessee State, they’re what Butler used to be, and otherwise-unaffiliated fans here will root for the Blue Raiders the way they used to root for the Bulldogs.

So it’s quite simple for Middle Tennessee: Want to be like Butler? Beat Butler. Beat a Butler team that is 9-0 against lower-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament.

“This is our big opportunity,’’ Massaro said. “I’m just hoping we take advantage of it.’’