Hoosier surprise Philly player?

FLC's Green a big reason for Butler's success

Posted: March 23, 2007

ST. LOUIS - The gym he practices on, the tiny bandbox that served as the set for "Hoosiers," is more famous than his team.

Don't talk to Mike Green about "Hoosiers." In what could pass for blasphemy in the state of Indiana, the Butler point guard admitted yesterday he's never seen the movie.

"I'm from Philly," he said. "We're in our own little basketball world there."

As the NCAA Tournament has passed from the first weekend into the second, the list of Philadelphia products has been whittled from 20 to four. No one is surprised to see Wayne Ellington still playing in the Sweet 16. The Episcopal Academy graduate plays for North Carolina, a team that by now packs extra clothes for the tourney, so accustomed are the Tar Heels to advancing. Ted Skuchas, Vanderbilt's top guy off the bench, is something of a surprise entrant but the Commodores come to the Sweet 16 by way of the Southeastern Conference, so really that's not shocking. And Friends Central product Mike Cook is toiling for Big East power Pittsburgh.

That the last guy is Green, and . . . well, whoever has Butler still alive in his bracket might want to go buy a lottery ticket.

Better than anyone, Green personifies the Cinderella role Butler has been pigeonholed into as it prepares for tonight's regional semifinal date with defending national champion and overall No. 1 seed Florida.

He isn't supposed to be here. Butler isn't supposed to be here.

Green has been undersold for the better part of his career.

Ditto Butler, of the Horizon League.

"In Philadelphia, I was an underdog my whole life," said Green, a Franklin Learning Center graduate. "We had so many players who were good in the city. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder and I know [my teammates] do, too. It's just natural. You've got to have it or you just don't care."

In a city known for its guards, Green came up with a pack of good ones. From Kyle Lowry to Mustafa Shakur, the backcourt talent was rampant. The 6-foot Green, an all-Public League selection who averaged close to 20 points in his senior season, didn't have Shakur's height or Lowry's head-turning speed. So, while Shakur packed his bags for Arizona and Lowry made a beeline for the Main Line, Green headed to Towson University, where he would play immediately.

For 2 years, he was the Tigers' leading scorer and broke most of the school's rookie records. Everything went exactly how Green envisioned, save for one thing: In his rookie year, Towson was 8-21. In his second season, the Tigers went 5-24.

"I wasn't having any fun," Green said. "Winning is fun. I got tired of losing."

So Green made an unusual choice. He traded up, exchanging what likely would be better odds at individual glory in exchange for team success. He transferred to Butler, a midmajor but a midmajor with pedigree. Heartbreak losers to Florida in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, Butler gained momentum the following year when it knocked off Wake Forest in the opening round and 4 years ago, served notice with a ride to the Sweet 16.

Green knew there was a chance his numbers might diminish, that he might not start. But he also knew he could win.

"I love the guy," Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. "He was hungry to win. The first time we met on campus during his visit, I knew it was a good fit and he agreed and we haven't looked back. He's just been a terrific addition."

Having landed on the idea of team success over individual glory on his own, Green found fellow converts at Butler. More blue collar than blue chip, none of the players on this 29-6 team was recruited by the name programs. Senior Brandon Crone said Purdue checked him out early but never really pursued him; leading scorer A.J. Graves never talked to anyone else. When asked if anyone from a power conference contacted him, Brian Ligon smiled and said, "Nope."

The Bulldogs win because Lickliter has convinced them that, though separately they don't add up to Florida, collectively they can.

"You've got so many guys around the country who can put the ball in the hole," said Green, who defying logic and height, leads the team in rebounding, averaging 6.0 boards per game. "About 90 percent of the guards can do that, but what I bring is something different to the table. I rebound. It's what we need for this team."

Butler won the Preseason NIT to start the season, dispatching a few familiar schools along the way - Indiana, Tennessee and the founding father of the midmajor success story, Gonzaga.

Staying hot all season, the Bulldogs put together a perfect nonconference schedule and found themselves in the Top 25 all season, including a weeklong ride in the Top 10 in February.

Given a No. 5 seed despite being upset by Wright State in their conference tournament, the Bulldogs promptly rewarded the selection committee by ousting fellow upstart Old Dominion in the first round and dispatching Atlantic Coast Conference power Maryland in the second.

"We do not view Butler as an underdog. I think that's a perception that's been created," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I understand the perception, but it's not reality . . . I've had the chance to see Butler play a lot. They'd be one of the best teams in the SEC."

Really, the Bulldogs aren't the least offended by the notion that they are underdogs or whatever label you'd like to stick on them.

They know who they are. Or who they aren't.

The athletics budget at Butler, according to the U.S. Office of Postsecondary Education, is $9.8 million. Florida's is $78 million.

Butler's superstar, Graves, grew up in Switz City, Ind., population 350. His father, Rick, owns a plumbing company with his brother. Florida's superstar, Joakim Noah, spent much of his life in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, the privileged son of a French tennis ace and a Swedish model.

"You can call us a midmajor, whatever you want," Green said. "I just know we're here. I guess I'm living 'Hoosiers.' " *

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