SALT LAKE CITY — He phones his mother for a kiss. Before every game. That’s not the sole reason Willie Veasley is the winningest Butler player of all-time, with 116 victories, or why the senior guard is considered the standard-bearer for The Butler Way, but it is part of the equation.
He made the call just before the fifth-seeded Bulldogs boarded the bus to Energy Solutions Arena on Thursday, to meet No. 1-seeded Syracuse. Rose Veasley smooched him over radio waves, and then said of the Orange, “They might be bigger, but we’re better.”
“And Willie said to me,” Rose recalls, “‘I’m with you, mom.’”
Syracuse hails from a bigger conference and a bigger gym: Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse was the biggest barn in America when it opened in 1928 with 15,000 seats; the Orange’s Carrier Dome, which became the country’s largest on-campus hoops venue when it opened in 1980, seats 34,616. Syracuse has a bigger hoops history: Butler had never even been to the Elite Eight, while the Orange have won a national championship and been to four Final Fours. And this current Syracuse team is much bigger on its front line: the Bulldogs start just one post player, 6-foot-8, 230-pound Matt Howard, while the Orange, even minus Arinze Onuaku, have 6-9, 240-pound Rick Jackson at center, 6-7 Kris Joseph and Wes Johnson at forward, and 7-footer DaShonte Riley off the bench.
But when being big should’ve mattered most in this game, when Shelvin Mack’s jumper from the left wing came off the rim with a minute left on the clock, and Butler leading 58-54, Veasley’s right hand appeared above the crowd. He’s just 6-3, but he skied over Jackson and Joseph to tip the ball in the net, and give the Bulldogs a six-point lead en route to pulling off the upset of the Sweet 16: Butler 63, Syracuse 59. “That just shows you,” said junior guard Zach Hahn, “that Willie has great heart.”
In a story earlier this month, the Indianapolis Star coined the phrase “Veasley Effect.” Veasley’s immense value to Butler, the story said, has been so hard to quantify in anything other than wins and losses that he’s never been named All-Conference in the Horizon League, or even player of the week. Not once in four years. Howard and sophomore Gordon Hayward, meanwhile, have both been Horizon Player of the Year. Mack was first-team All-Conference this season.
On Thursday, Veasley went from unsung hero to just plain hero, by making not one, but three clutch plays that put Butler in its first Elite Eight in school history. With the Bulldogs trailing 54-50 with four minutes left, he stole the ball from Syracuse two-guard Andy Rautins – a turnover that Ronald Nored converted into a 3-pointer at the other end. Howard put the Bulldogs up 55-54 with 2:41 to go, and after another Rautins turnover, Butler went back down the court looking to make it a two-possession game.
With Howard sealed off on the inside, the ball found its way to Veasley in the left corner. The Orange’s 2-3 zone didn’t rotate over in time. His three-point attempt hit the rim twice, took a high bounce off the backboard — so high that he said “I thought it was going to bounce over” — and then fell in. What he’d later call a “H.O.R.S.E” shot put Butler up 58-54, and had Syracuse feeling the full Veasley Effect.
Veasley, who finished with 13 points and five rebounds, was asked in the locker room if this was the greatest win in Butler history. After considering the circumstances — that ‘Cuse was a No. 1 seed, that the Bulldogs had finally broken through their Sweet 16 ceiling, and were now just a win away from reaching a Final Four in their hometown of Indianapolis — he concluded, “Yeah, you could say that.”
But how did Butler make this happen? In their final huddle before taking the court on Thursday, Nored, the team’s de facto spokesman, said he reminded his teammates to “be Bulldogs again.” It was something that coach Brad Stevens told them back in November, after they lost to Minnesota to open the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. Heading into a game against UCLA, he said they needed to “be Bulldogs,” which, according to Nored, meant “being tough, getting after it, but still staying poised.”
They were Bulldogs against the Orange, forcing 18 turnovers (while only committing seven) and holding them to their lowest scoring output of the season. This is where the national perception of Butler diverges from the reality: As Hahn said, “People see the name Butler on our jerseys and think we win by just shooting a bunch of threes.” The truth, especially during the latter part of their 23-game winning streak, is that the Bulldogs are winning with defense. They were only 6-of-24 from long-range against the ‘Cuse. As nice as it would be to paint them as a plucky, postmillennial version of Hoosiers, they’re in the Elite Eight because they’re one of the country’s elite defensive teams.
Nored got in Rautins’ grill and held him to 15 points and five turnovers. Veasley marked up Johnson, who’d scored 31 in the second round, and held him to 17. In the scouting report, Butler coaches had stressed to Veasley that he make Johnson “as uncomfortable as possible” — and for much of the first half, when the Orange fell behind 12-1 early on, and managed just 25 total points, they looked very uncomfortable. “We wanted to make it ugly for them,” Nored said. “We saw on film that when games were tough, and ugly, Syracuse was not as good as they were when teams jut let them run free.”
Butler can do ugly, on defense and other fronts: Howard battled his way to nine points and seven boards while wearing shorts a few sizes smaller than the 2010 norm … and a three-week mustache that he committed to growing for the postseason. It’s in the same genre as Larry Bird’s old Celtics ’stache, except it’s much dirtier-looking. “I know it’s bad.” Howard said. “I’m a realist. But as bad as it is, I wanted to stick with it.” His dedication to teamwork, maximum effort in the post, and questionable facial hair has shaped his tournament identity.
Sitting nearby him in the locker room was Hayward, who broke out of a shooting slump to score 17 points, two weeks after he became mildly Internet famous for an amateur rap track he recorded during spring break. Its title was Too Big Yo, and some teammates found Hayward’s rapping stylistically ugly, needling him about it ever since the release date. The song did contain the following lines, though:
But it’s not about me, it’s about the team?
Going to the tourney with a full head of steam
?‘Chip’s real close, it’s at our back door?
Get a few dubs we’ll be in the Final Four
Now they’re only one ‘dub away. Hayward said the Bulldogs first talked about the prospect of reaching Indy’s Lucas Oil Stadium over the summer, when they reconvened as a team after a 2008-09 campaign that ended with a first-round loss to LSU in the NCAAs. “We said to each other,” Hayward recalled, “‘If we do all the right things, we could be back here at the end of the season.’”
As the last few seconds ticked off on the upset that rocked the Sweet 16, Hayward streaked up the court with the ball in his hands, acknowledging a Butler cheering section that was all on its feet, rejoicing in the four-point victory. Nored ran up to the Bulldogs cheerleaders, and soon found himself in a mob of skirts and pom-pons. “They just kind of swooped in on me there,” he said. “But that’s not a bad position to be in, is it?”
The Veasleys, Rose and Willie Sr., took in the scene from the second row of the Butler section. By making the trip from Freeport, Ill., they were able to see their son do something he hadn’t all season. “He smiled!” Rose said, beaming. “He actually smiled!”
The younger Willie has a reputation for stoicism — in practice, in games, and usually, while others are celebrating. “He doesn’t get angry, he doesn’t get upset, he doesn’t get happy, he never shows his emotions,” Rose said. “All he wants to do is win.”
Win No. 117 would get Willie Veasley and underdog Butler to the Final Four. But No. 116 is something to be cherished: a bracket-buster that was finished with a smile, sealed with a tip-in, and preceded, as always, with a kiss.