INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Butler coach LaVall Jordan proudly wears an old-school message across his chest.
The words on his blue, long-sleeve shirt read simply, “Gritty not pretty.”
To Jordan, the philosophy means as much now as when he first adopted it playing for the Bulldogs in the late 1990s. As an assistant coach in the mid 2000s, Jordan spent five more seasons instilling those values in Butler players.
When Jordan took the head coaching job at his alma mater three years ago, there was little doubt he’d make it fashionable again.
“When you think of Butler, back in the day, that’s what it was,” he said. “Our defense is a point of pride, so you’ve got to embrace it. I think guys have. You’ve got to know who you are, embrace that and try to be as good as you can at it every single day.”
Returning to the notion of basic, blue-collar basketball certainly has made a difference.
A year ago, the Bulldogs lost five games by five or fewer points, suffered two more overtime defeats, finished in a three-way tie for last in the Big East and endured their first losing season since 2013-14.
This year, Butler (18-5, 6-4 Big East) is 5-2 in close games, already has surpassed last season’s victory total and returned to the AP Top 25.
Jordan knows why: Stinginess.
Nobody understands how the concept helped Butler better than Jordan who, in four seasons, helped the program begin its ascension with three conference championships, four postseason appearances and its first NCAA Tournament victory in 39 years. Jordan played with a group of talented ball-handlers, potent 3-point shooters, skilled defenders and teammates willing to scuff up their knees.
Two years later, as part of coach Todd Lickliter’s staff, Jordan was around for the Bulldogs’ first Sweet Sixteen trip in 41 years. He also watched from afar as Brad Stevens stuck to the same script when the Bulldogs reached national championship games in 2010 and 2011.
And it’s still working.
A month ago, the Bulldogs climbed as high as No. 5 — a school record — and suddenly emerged in the conversation about possible No. 1 seeds. Three straight losses ended that but the Bulldogs rebounded with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. On Wednesday with their top defender and starting point guard, Aaron Thompson, back for the first time in four games, they got back to work and beat No. 10 Villanova on Kamar Baldwin’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“Physically, they were tougher than us,” said coach Jay Wright, who has won two national championships with the Wildcats.
Style points have never mattered much to the Bulldogs, who prefer digging in, digging down and digging out.
Here, stingy defense and boxing out are long-established trademarks of their most successful seasons, a perfect fit in the rugged Big East. When things get ugly on the court, Butler knows how to clean up.
“It’s doing whatever it takes to win. It might not always be pretty,” senior swingman Sean McDermott said. “It might not be scoring 30 points in five minutes, but it’s getting stops when you have to, diving on the floor for loose balls, winning all those little possessions that people don’t realize are so important to the outcome of the game.”
The Bulldogs finished the 2003 and 2010 seasons ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense. They started this week eighth in scoring defense (59.9 points). and 39th in turnovers (11.7).
Other factors just show up on tape and there are plenty of examples over the years:
— There was the time the late Joel Cornette soaked his sneakers by knocking over a water cooler trying to save the ball in the 2003 tourney. Rob Walls took off his size 15 sneakers and handed them to Cornette so he could help close out the second-round upset of Louisville.
— In the 2010 title game, the Bulldogs came inches away from upsetting Duke as Matt Howard’s screen at mid-court gave Gordon Hayward a clean look on the buzzer-beating heave.
— One year later, in the regional final against Pittsburgh, it was Howard who grabbed a rebound underneath his own basket and alertly drew a foul with 0.8 seconds left. He made the tie-breaking free throw before intentionally missing the second shot to run out the clock.
“It’s fun,” Baldwin said when asked about the style. “I just embraced the grind. It wasn’t fun at first, but it’s been tremendous.”
The Bulldogs have held foes to 37.8% shooting from the field, 13th nationally, and seven teams haven’t topped 55 points. Nine more teams have been limited to 65 or fewer points.
With wins over Minnesota, Missouri, Stanford, Ole Miss, Florida, Purdue, Marquette, Creighton and now Villanova, along with a 53-52 loss at top-ranked Baylor, the Bulldogs already have a terrific NCAA tourney resume and are currently No. 12 in the NET rankings.
It hasn’t always been pretty. But many believe Jordan has created a real masterpiece.
“I’ve watched a lot of basketball over the 37 years I’ve been doing this,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after Butler shut down his high-scoring offense in a 71-57 loss in January. “There aren’t many teams I’ve seen as connected, on both ends of the floor, as they are.”
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25