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Barn storming

Butler may be small-town, but it isn't small-time, and Florida expects a major test from this mid-major

March 23, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — A.J. Graves is a 155-pound guard from an Indiana town of barely 300 people. But as he stood on the court inside the Edward Jones Dome looking around the cavernous arena where his Butler team will pay defending national champion Florida tonight in a Midwest Regional semifinal, he felt at home.

"The basketball goal at our house, behind it was just fields. It was open," he said.

And then he grinned.

"Kind of like a dome."

This is the "Hoosiers" story of the NCAA tournament -- never mind that Butler was ranked most of the season and defeated Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga to win the preseason National Invitation Tournament.

This is the story of the 6-foot-1 son of a plumber taking on the 6-11 son of a French Open champion.

Florida's Joakim Noah was born in New York, and is as comfortable in Paris as he is in Manhattan.

The only time Graves has ever seen New York, he was there to play in Madison Square Garden.

But don't imagine there's no way in a hundred years Butler could win. Back in 2000, Butler, whose roster included one of Graves' three brothers, Andrew, took Florida to overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing on a last-second shot.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan hasn't forgotten. "We do not view Butler as an underdog," he said. "I think that's a perception that gets created.

"I understand the perception, but the perception is not reality.... Every quote-unquote power conference they've lined up against, they've beaten."

Look all you want for the mid-major chip on Butler's shoulder, but you won't find one.

"I don't know how you wouldn't label us a mid-major, with 3,000 people at our school," Graves said. "We don't get to play in a major conference and we don't get the attention, but that's not going to stop us.

"We have a lot of physical deficiencies. We're not that big. We can't rely on our skill. We've got to back each other up. We've got to play Butler basketball."

It's a brand born in small-town Indiana, even though point guard Mike Green is from Philadelphia.

"I'm coming from a city with a million people, and he's got 300," Green said. "But as far as basketball, it doesn't have nothing to do with where you're from.

"They're pretty cool kids. They work hard, They're well-coached, and they took me in like I was one of their own."

Graves' hometown of Switz City, some 45 minutes from Bloomington, doesn't have a stoplight or a grocery store.

"There's a flashing light, a gun shop and a post office," Graves said. "The grocery store closed this past Christmas. But it wasn't really a grocery store. It was more of a gas station and convenience store."

Out there in the fields, miles from other houses, Graves and his brothers played basketball all day long, and Graves, a junior whose 17-point average leads the Bulldogs, became the runner-up for the coveted Indiana high school title of Mr. Basketball.

Tonight, he'll be trying to make the season last another two days.

"I don't feel any pressure. I don't think our team does either," Graves said. "The first two games we weren't picked to win, and we're still not picked to win.

"We're excited. Who wouldn't want to get to play the No. 1 overall seed?"

robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Online poll

There were 1,743 responses to our online poll: Who will win the Midwest Regional?

*--* Florida 54.7% Oregon 33.8% UNLV 9.1% Butler 2.4%

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You can vote for who you think will win Saturday's West and South regional finals at latimes.com/sports.

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