INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -It's 7 a.m. in Indianapolis and the city's residents are clearing their bleary eyes and snow-covered driveways.
A few miles north of downtown, the activity is already bustling. Butler's soccer team is stretching at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The football team works out in the West Gym. The softball team arrives for conditioning, and the sound of bouncing basketballs echoes through the hallways.
At most schools, these early morning workouts might seem an aberration. At Butler, it's part of basketball tradition.
``We do this all the time, every day,'' junior forward Willie Veasley said. ``I think you get more focused when you wake up and everything is so fresh. It's gotten us to where we are now, and it's probably real different from what other programs do.''
No. 13 Butler hasn't become, arguably, the best midmajor program between Cincinnati and Spokane, Wash., by following standard procedure.
But you can't quibble with the results.
ts since 2000 and reached the regional semifinals twice in the last six years. Over the past three seasons, they've won more games than any other Division I school in Indiana and have been ranked for 40 weeks since 2006.
This season's achievements may be the most improbable yet.
After graduating five of the top seven scorers from last season's Horizon League champs, many expected Butler to wind up on a familiar midmajor trend line - falling out of the spotlight during a rebuilding phase.
Instead, the daybreak practices have become symbolic of a new era in Bulldogs basketball.
They start three freshmen and a sophomore and have the nation's third-youngest coach, 32-year-old Brad Stevens, yet are 18-1 for the first time in school history and 9-0 after the first half of the conference season, another school first. Butler already has eight road wins and only a three-point loss at Ohio State in December has prevented talk of a perfect season. Slowly, and steadily, poll voters have taken note. A few more wins could give Butler a top-10 ranking for the third straight season.
Not bad for the small school few expected to be back here so soon.
``Maybe before the season, I thought that (we'd be rebuilding), but playing with these guys in the summer and offseason, I saw that this group could really do something special,'' said Matt Howard, the sophomore forward. ``So, no, I'm not really surprised.''
Butler's old-school strategy favors teamwork over experience. Players share the basketball, take pride in defending opponents, prefer crediting teammates to gloating about their own accomplishments and they don't deviate from the system.
Simply put, it's all about desire, determination and execution.
And the Bulldogs have an uncanny knack for seemingly cloning their top players from past seasons.
Freshman guard Shelvin Mack and freshman forward Gordon Hayward are already drawing comparisons to guard Mike Green and forward Pete Campbell, key components in last year's NCAA tourney push. Veasley conjures images of a smaller version of Joel Cornette, the athletic forward who helped the Bulldogs reach the NCAA regional semis in 2003.
Freshman point guard Ronald Nored has a similar style to Darnell Archey, who teamed with Cornette on that '03 team, and sophomore guard Zach Hahn is a sharp-shooting 3-point specialist like A.J. Graves and Brandon Miller before him.
Not surprisingly, the numbers haven't changed much. Butler again ranks among the top 20 nationally in fewest points allowed, fewest turnovers and 3-pointers per game, just as they have much of the decade.
And it's all because Butler coaches look for distinctive traits in recruits - like maturity and teamwork - that other schools often overlook. At Butler, they're essential.
high school coaches and the coaches around them. That gives you better insight into them,'' Stevens said. ``But I think if you watched how they interacted with their teammates on and off the court, you'd see we really didn't have to do a lot of research.''
So when the freshmen arrive in Indy, they've already agreed to trade glitz and glamour, even dunks, for productivity.
It's a philosophy that makes opposing coaches envious.
``It was fun to watch the white team (Butler) perform,'' Wisconsin-Milwaukee Rob Jeter said, shaking his head after a recent loss to the Bulldogs. ``Wow! I just have a lot of respect for guys who play with passion, stick together and play with a plan.''
The Bulldogs also keep things in perspective.
They focus on making the most of what they have, not complaining about what they don't have - bigger post players, highly ranked recruiting classes or sparkling new facilities.
There's no talk of replacing their historic 81-year-old arena where the movie ``Hoosiers'' was filmed. Coaches devised to the early morning practices so players could make it to all their classes. And although the school has never produced an NBA player and rarely has a player taller than 6-foot-8, the Bulldogs still find ways to win.
Stevens credits part of the success on design, but all of it is based on a simple philosophy.
elflessness and their belief in being a great teammate,'' he said.
They call this the Butler way, and it's created a reputation for being different. In 2003, players sold tickets to their own NCAA regional games between practices and one teammate handed his shoes to Cornette after Cornette ran into a water cooler. In 2005, then coach Todd Lickliter played the role of ticket manager in his own office. This year, they are perhaps the youngest team in the Top 25.
Then again, overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Butler.
It has reached the NCAA under four different coaches in the past decade.
So the Bulldogs used their success to establish a stronger program. They're now getting bigger, better recruits who still fit the system. The 6-8 Howard was a top 100 recruit. The 6-8 Hayward turned down Purdue to play at Butler. Backup forward Avery Jukes transferred from Alabama, and the Bulldogs have already signed 6-10 Andrew Smith for next season.
Other programs have followed similar tactics to become national powers.
And with so many confident, young players on the roster, the future looks promising. Some think they could emerge as a Final Four team. But the Bulldogs seem unfazed by all the attention.
we know we can play with them. We play as a team, and that's what it takes.''
The consistency has prompted some to put Butler in the same breath as Xavier and Gonzaga, consistently strong programs outside the six power conferences.
Just don't use those sentences inside Hinkle Fieldhouse, where players and coaches spend mornings working to give Butler its own identity.
``We're not aiming to be someone else,'' Stevens said. ``I think a lot of programs do things really well and when you watch them on tape, you may take something and try some things that might work for your program. But we are Butler, and we're just trying to be the best Butler team we can be.''

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