Marquette's Jimmy Butler prides himself on being a defender first
Jimmy Butler has established himself as one of the tournament's elite stoppers
The defensive-minded Butler is projected as a second-round NBA draft choice
His coach, Buzz Williams, calls Butler "the smartest player I've ever coached"
On March 18, 2010, during the first round of the NCAA tournament, Washington forward Quincy Pondexter received a pass inside the half-court circle, cleared the lane with a wave of his hand and took on Marquette's Jimmy Butler one-on-one. The result -- a slick, hop-step leaner with just 1.7 seconds remaining -- banked in, sending the crowd into echoing convulsions. Pondexter, now with the New Orleans Hornets, had suddenly toppled the sixth-seeded Golden Eagles, 80-78, and terminated three seniors' college basketball careers.
The shot's most dramatic effect, however, would unfold more privately. One day last year, still agitated, the defender whom Pondexter humiliated walked into the upstairs office of the Marquette practice facility and accessed a computer. Jimmy Butler soon located a JPEG of the play online, printed it out on a sheet of white paper and hung the picture up on the back of his dorm room door, where the senior swingman from Tomball, Texas, revisits it in vivid, excruciating color every day.
"Man, it hurts," Butler says. "If the door is shut, I gotta look at it. Every morning when I wake up, if I want to get out, I gotta look at it. I never want it to happen again."
Butler is 6-foot-7 and lanky, a generally mild-mannered counterpoint to his excitable, high-stepping coach, Buzz Williams, a fellow Texan. Williams, 38, recruited Butler to Milwaukee from junior college, and from the beginning raved about the usefulness of the young man's versatility. This season, for example, Butler ranks second on the team in points (15.8 per game), second in rebounding (6.1), fourth in assists (2.3) and first in minutes (34.6).
"He's just really, really, difficult to take off the floor," Williams said last weekend. But that's also because Butler's biggest impact on the 11th-seeded Golden Eagles (22-14), now in the Sweet 16, lies in his opponents' statistics as much as his own.
Last Friday, in the Round of 64 in Cleveland, Williams assigned Butler to quicksilver Xavier guard Tu Holloway (20.1 ppg), the Atlantic 10's Player of the Year. The result? Holloway -- pressured by Butler from tip-off and swarmed by the rest of the team on ball-screens -- was held to five points (on 1-of-8 shooting) in a 66-55 Marquette rout. Butler's presence, Williams would say afterward, "gives me the ultimate confidence I've ever had in a single player defensively."
On Sunday, during the second half against second-seeded Syracuse, Williams then sent Butler to neutralize point guard Scoop Jardine. The result? Jardine, who finished the game with six points, would not make a field goal in the final 14 minutes and was harassed by Butler into a critical, off-target three-pointer when the Orange were down three with 19 seconds remaining. Streaking Marquette, which also quieted Syracuse big man Rick Jackson (seven points) with a flood of double-teams, won again, 66-62.
By night's end, Butler -- who'd twice slowed UConn star Kemba Walker (15-of-43 shooting in Big East games against the Golden Eagles) and Providence's Marshon Brooks (14-of-36) already -- had established his credentials as one of the tournament's elite stoppers.
"Jimmy has completely evolved as a player during his three years here," Williams says. "Relative to his skill set, relative to his importance to the team's success, and relative to his responsibility for the team's success." And so it is that Marquette, the least-heralded of the NCAA-record 11 Big East teams in the field, are now one of the conference's only two survivors.
Williams and Butler first met when the latter was a freshman at Tyler (Texas) Junior College and the former was an assistant to then-Marquette coach Tom Crean. Williams would often make trips to Tyler to see Joe Fulce, now a senior, but the coach, a proud junior college kid himself, repeatedly found himself talking to Fulce's teammate, Jimmy, about anything besides basketball: his classes, his interests, how his family was doing. Williams eventually became so smitten that he told Butler -- a zero-star recruit whom major colleges had barely sniffed out of Tomball High -- that if he ever got a head coaching gig of his own, "I'd love to take you."
Which is more or less what happened next. Butler's stock at Juco would ultimately surge (he got a scholarship offer from Kentucky and visited Iowa State), but on April 17, 2008, just one week after Crean left to take the head job at Indiana, Butler became Williams' very first recruit, signing before Fulce. Jimmy had never even seen the Marquette campus. "[Williams] held his word," says Butler, who faxed in his letter of intent from a local McDonald's. "So that was an easy decision for me."
Upon arrival, though, the transfer approached Division I basketball like a fan more than a player. Butler couldn't help but revere upperclassmen like Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward, two future NBA players who were similarly sized and played his position.
"When Jimmy first got here," Marquette assistant Tony Benford recalls, "I was like, Man, I don't know if this guy's tough enough to make it. He was in awe of those guys. He didn't know how hard he had to play defensively and offensively. He was kind of like, Can I have your autograph?"
But these days, Benford says, that mentality seems so very long ago. Butler, whose varied skill-set has impressed NBA scouts this spring (he's currently projected as a second-round pick), has done far more than learn how to become more aggressive.
"He's the smartest player I've ever coached," Williams says. Butler, a devotee of film study, ranks No. 16 in offensive efficiency among players who use at least 20 percent of their team's possessions (as per kenpom.com). And for all his defensive prowess, he commits just 1.54 fouls per 40 minutes -- 26th fewest in the nation.
"You can tell me I'm a good player, a scorer," Butler says, "but I want to be a great defender first."
On Friday night, against North Carolina, he'll get another chance to prove just that. In Newark, Butler will most likely be assigned the Tar Heels' star freshman, Harrison Barnes (22.2 ppg over his last seven games), with the Elite Eight and his own college basketball career on the line. And despite the stakes -- the biggest of Butler's career -- the senior won't be worried.
"Because I'm guarding their best player," Butler likes to tell himself, "I know the future is in my hands."
Not hanging on his door.