Butch Itching For A Shot

An injury led many to acknowledge his full importance, but Butch wants to prove it on the court

CHICAGO -- Brian Butch has always worn plenty where his sleeve should be. Of course now all eyes are focused there for a different reason entirely.

Cleared to play against UNLV on Sunday should Bo Ryan call his name, the versatile seven-footer who has been called everything from McDonald's All-American to bust to Polar Bear might be fortunate enough to earn a shot at getting people to stop calling him anything but a winner.

Perhaps the irony was not lost on Butch when some of the same national pundits who once tore him down turned a leaf in recent weeks. When Butch went down in ugly sight in front of the entire nation in Wisconsin's 49-48 loss at Columbus, the experts mostly decided his elbow injury left the Badgers on the right-hand side.

And after the team dropped three of its final six to tough competition in the final weeks, it was the loss of Butch – the one-time punching bag for some – that was cited as the reason Wisconsin would be sent home early.

Oh, how the tables had turned.

"It's nice," Butch said, "But I'd rather be playing than anything, and have my playing speak for me – not me getting hurt."

One thing Butch is certainly good at is saying the right things. For a player who exhibits the range of emotions he does around competition – whether the roars and roof-raises or the post-season tears a year ago – Butch sticks to the script in public regarding his detractors.

Ryan and his crew had warned everyone of Butch's improved footwork and conditioning entering this season, and a career breakout game against preseason Big East Player of the Year Aaron Gray and Pittsburgh on what had been the Badgers' biggest stage at that point certainly woke people to his potential.

Even then the big man needed to be pleasantly bullied by reporters into admitting his performance felt good considering the circumstances.

Butch knew he had a ways to come to match that in terms of consistency, as well as continue to grow in his game. That, says teammate Joe Krabbenhoft, is what has concerned Butch most.

"He's worked hard," Krabbenhoft said. "I think that needs to be said. He's worked hard to change those ideas and thoughts that people have said about him. It went from, ‘He's not good. He's not really helping them,' to, ‘We can't win without him.'

"So, that's a credit to Brian, because he's worked so hard, and he's done so many good things for his team."

There are those who might say the added pressure on a high school All-American is completely warranted. Although, in a sense it is perhaps funny that a developing 18-year-old kid is celebrated or criticized in the same manner as is a multi-million dollar veteran signing in the pros.

Elite programs might look at a LaMarcus Aldridge or a Greg Oden and expect all heralded big men to put it together that quickly. The truth, on the other hand, is typically that players like those are far more the exception than the rule.

"Big men in general, it's a hard transition coming from the high school level getting used to just the physicalness of the Big Ten and how much strength you need to gain before you're ready to go in and contribute," said Jason Chappell.

Chappell knows from experience what that learning curve looks like. Not only has he faced it, but you don't spend five years in a conference like the Big Ten without seeing it in athletes all around you. It's a completely different post game, Chappell pointed out. "You can just rely in high school on being taller than the other guy," he said.

"Brian, as far as he's concerned, he's done a great job over the years just working," Chappell said. "And he had a lot of doubters when he first came in, and he just had to not let that worry him and just try to work through it."

But then came the elbow and out flew the hope that Butch might prove in the limelight where he thinks he can take his game; or perhaps as he would more cautiously put it, how his game can help the team.

That left the most fiery Badger, with the possible exception of Alando Tucker, stuck on the bench trying to figure out what to do with all that bubbling emotion. Against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the Polar Bear could hardly contain himself.

Butch was up on his feet with a fist pump trying to wake his teammates as they fell behind. He was the only member of the Badger bench standing on one occasion in particular, rallying the team in a completely positive manner – not railing against their early struggles, but doing his best to get them on track.

"That's perfect," Tucker said. "That's the type of player Brian is. He's always been emotional, even when he's on the court. It's exciting as a player for me to see that from him, because I understand that. I've been in that position before where I sat out my whole sophomore year, and I was that guy that was energized on the bench and I encouraged my other players and other teammates, and he's doing the same thing."

Tucker needs little outside motivation by now, but of course more never hurts. Where that fire might really help, Tucker agreed, is in keeping players like Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma motivated. That duo has been tasked with stepping up and in particular giving the team long jump shots in the same manner as Butch. That keeps opposing defenses honest, especially as they deploy more and more of that dreaded zone.

Brian isn't moping, Tucker said. And those teammates aren't ever moping either. So what has it been like for the big man stuck in a seat during the crunch time of perhaps the most important and celebrated season in the history of the program?

"I'm thinking we've got to win," Butch smiled. "For me to come back and play we've got to keep winning. And the guys know that, and they've done a great job of trying to win. So there's a chance I could come back. The main thing is I'm competitive. If I'm playing or not, I want to win at whatever I'm doing."

That competitive nature is what Butch is hoping will be enough for Ryan to decide he's ready to contribute. Butch admits he will never be at 100 percent again this season, and puts his current status at somewhere near 60 percent, a seemingly arbitrary number in his mind.

But he says he feels good, and that there is no significant tenderness in the elbow with his brace. How that will affect his shot, particularly from the perimeter, is something that remains to be seen.

"I feel like it's been a constant steady improvement," Butch said. "And that's one thing I'm definitely excited about. Sunday will be three weeks, and I was supposed to be out four to six weeks, so that's exciting right there."

"A constant steady improvement" might summarize something a little bit wider when it comes to Butch's game. He has certainly suffered his share of setbacks so far. But in the end, he will get that final say based on what he ultimately does on the court. He just hopes that day can start in March.

"That's what college basketball is about," Butch happened to say when asked a prior question about specific people predicting a UNLV victory on Sunday. "It's about the people that play."

The rest is just chatter.

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