YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - The last six or so weeks of Butler's season can be summed up by one play in Thursday night's 68-59 win over Youngstown State.
The Bulldogs' Australian freshman point guard was, confidently and comfortably, dribbling seconds off the shot clock and protecting a lead when the nearest official whistled Jackson Aldridge for a five-second violation. A perplexed Aldridge shrugged his shoulders, tossed the ball to the official and jogged back on defense.
There's no five-second call in international basketball. He never saw it coming.
There's no manual for handling life as the most improbable, bullseye-wearing, scratch-and-clawing two-time national runner-up in college basketball history, either.
Butler Coach Brad Stevens is trying.
"I just wanted our guys to play really burden-free, just enjoy playing," Stevens said after Thursday night's win. "It's not about luck. Just anytime you wake up in a hotel room on the road and the USA Today is sitting at your door and the front page story is about you, it adds some burden. It adds some extra stress."
Stevens and his players -- almost all new players -- know the stakes and expectations. They're fighting the fight. This isn't the same Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard-led Butler team that twice extended Cinderella's night on the town, knocked off a bunch of name-brand programs and allowed every other mid-major program in America to start thinking anything was possible.
This is a Butler team that has its own dreams but knows those are miles away. The shots have been off to the point that Youngstown State opened Thursday night's game in a zone defense, daring Butler to shoot. Butler entered Thursday night's game in fifth place in the Horizon League standings. A year ago, Butler blew a late 10-point lead at Youngstown State and crash-landed in a shocking defeat.
That team didn't lose again until running into UConn in the national title game.
"You never know when those turning points are until after the season is over," Stevens said. "Can this be one? I can't tell you that. It's a good win. I remember (last year's game here) vividly."
This Butler team has struggled to score. The Bulldogs entered Thursday night's game shooting under 40 percent for the year and just 28 percent on 3-point tries. The shooting's been especially bad lately in a stretch that's seen Butler suffer double-digit losses at Horizon rivals Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wisconsin-Green Bay and a close home loss last weekend to Detroit, a game in which Butler shot 35 percent from the field overall and 4-of-19 from beyond the arc.
"Credit these guys for staying in the gym, continuing to work," Stevens said. "In the past when we've been really good I've never dwelled on past. In this moment when we're fighting, scratching, clawing to be good, why dwell on the past?
"We all make choices over the course of a season. One of the choices I've made is to believe in these guys."
The Giant Killers keep encountering obstacles. Three sophomores and one freshman started for Butler -- the average fan would recognize only senior guard Ronald Nored -- on Thursday, a game Butler needed to avoid slipping to .500 for the season. The Bulldogs played their second straight game without sophomore power forward Khyle Marshall, a guy who grabbed a lot of big rebounds last year and had done the same this year before suffering a concussion in a freak practice collision last Friday.
Making the Final Four has been new but success has not. Butler has averaged 29.2 wins per season over the last five seasons and has won more games in that time than anybody except Kansas, Duke and North Carolina. A standard has been set, but the underdog role remains the one in which this team is most comfortable.
Last year at this time, Cleveland State was in the Horizon League driver's seat. Butler went into Cleveland on a Saturday morning and delivered a message-sending win. Wisconsin-Milwaukee ended up winning the league's regular-season title. Butler won the league tournament on Milwaukee's court, then won a few games in the tournament everybody remembers.
The Bulldogs, who play at Cleveland State on Saturday morning, are bigger underdogs than they've ever been. But they're alive. Maybe, in a few weeks, they'll be dangerous.
This Butler team -- step by step, brick by brick -- is hoping to make a similar run. It starts with the basics, a few shots dropping, a few rebounds falling into the right hands, maybe Aldridge learning the rules.
"If I was a better coach, I would have explained to our Australian point guard what (a) five-second (call) is and he'd have known that," Stevens said.
Brad Stevens, his own worst critic.
Brad Stevens, the coach no other coach wants to draw in March.