Wisconsin's Brian Butch, once dismissed as the Big Ten's most overrated player, has matured into a conference star
THE BUTCH family is used to taking the long road. Peter, the father of 6'11" Wisconsin center Brian, never played high school basketball: He took his first job, in an Appleton, Wis., Piggly Wiggly supermarket, at age 16, and made a life of it. Thirty years later—after working as a bagger and a stock boy, then in the produce department and the meat department, and managing three stores—he became the owner of Butch's Piggly Wiggly in New London, a 20-minute drive from the branch where he began. It was a measured, rather than meteoric, rise.
Brian played in the McDonald's All-American Game in 2003, on the West team that lost 122--107 to an East squad featuring LeBron James, Chris Paul and Luol Deng. The next season, James became the NBA's Rookie of the Year, Deng played in the Final Four with Duke, and Paul established himself as one of the nation's best point guards at Wake Forest. Butch arrived in Madison with a 185-pound frame that was unfit for the brutality of Big Ten post play, and he made a decision that was unthinkable for a modern-era high school phenom: He redshirted. "I'll probably be the last McDonald's All-American to redshirt like that, but it was something I had to do," Butch says. "I knew I was going to be better off as a [fifth-year] senior than I was as a skinny freshman."
That foresight is being rewarded. Now 23, Butch is the second-leading scorer (13.9 points a game, through Sunday) and the top rebounder (7.7) for the No. 17 Badgers (13--2), who were off to a 3--0 start in the Big Ten. Butch is also anchoring a defense that ranks first nationally in efficiency, at 0.801 points allowed per possession, and as a graduate student pursuing a masters in communications he is a Methuselean anomaly in a game dominated by freshman stars such as Kansas State's Michael Beasley and Indiana's Eric Gordon.
After Butch sat out his freshman year, his path to stardom was tortuous. As a redshirt freshman he struggled while his mom, Nancy, battled breast cancer (it has been in remission since 2005), and he missed six games after contracting mononucleosis. He averaged just 3.6 points, and adding insult to illness, during one broadcast ESPN's Doug Gottlieb called Butch "the most overrated player in the Big Ten."
Butch's next two seasons were interrupted by injuries—a badly sprained ankle at Ohio State in 2006 and a gruesomely dislocated elbow against the Buckeyes in February '07 that ended his season. "Brian could not catch a break," says Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard. With Butch out of the lineup, the once top-ranked Badgers were knocked out of last season's NCAA tournament in the second round.
Clips of Butch's freakish elbow injury have been viewed more than 170,000 times on YouTube. "I'm glad it's brought people so much enjoyment," he says with a chuckle, "but there's no way I could ever watch it." He would rather you see this year's highlights—such as his 21-point, 11-rebound performance in an upset of Texas on Dec. 29 as he tormented the Longhorns with close-range artistry—or examples of his nimbler post game, the result of trimming 13 pounds from a frame that had grown too bulky at 245 pounds. "I'm still a slow, 7-foot white guy," says Butch, "but I've really improved my footwork and my agility on things like helping cover screens and using my feet to get position on offense." Butch may warrant that dreaded NBA talent evaluators' label, "He is what he is," but he has finally become the centerpiece of the team he was expected to star for out of high school. It just happened at a pace perhaps only his family can appreciate.
Besides Brian Butch, just three of the 24 players from the 2003 McDonald's All-American game remain in college; all but Butch transferred early in their careers.
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