INDIANAPOLIS -- There might be a lot of people who were surprised by Butler's run to the Final Four and national title game, but Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is not one of them.
But that's only because unlike most of the rest of the country, Dixon had a chance to see two of the Bulldogs' top players up close in summer 2009 and understood just how talented they were.
Dixon was the head coach of the USA Basketball Under-19 team that won the gold medal in the world championships in July in Aukland, New Zealand.
The captain of the team, which went 9-0 and became the first United States team since '91 to win the U-19 gold medal, was Butler sophomore Shelvin Mack, and one of the team's top players was Butler star forward Gordon Hayward.
"When I came back from that I was asked by some members of the media what I learned from it and I told them, 'Don't play Butler because they are going to be really good,'" Dixon said Sunday. "And I meant it because I knew how good those two guys were. I mean, Gordon was by far our best player and Shelvin was a great basketball player and our best leader, and he did so many things well for us.
"I thought it was very clear from Day 1 that Shelvin was the best choice to be our captain, not because he was a vocal leader, but because of his leadership qualities and the way he played -- unselfish, disciplined, his work ethic, he is physical, his commitment to defend; he was the perfect guy to set the tone for the rest of the team.
"I know a lot of people like the Cinderella references about that team but those are two guys who are as good as anyone on any team in the country."
Both players talked Sunday about how much the experience benefitted them and how much they learned from playing for Dixon as well as his assistant coaches, Purdue coach Matt Painter and Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowrey.
"All three of those guys were phenomenal coaches, especially coach Dixon, who helped me a lot and brought the best out of me," said Hayward, a 6-foot-9 sophomore. "Coach Dixon really helped me out using my size as one of my strengths."
Dixon said the coaches played Hayward at power forward and pushed him to become a more physical presence rebounding the basketball, and that is one of the biggest changes in his game from last year to this year.
"We needed rebounding and we needed him to play big for us," Dixon said. "When I talked to coach [Butler coach Brad] Stevens in December, he said that was the area he had improved the most -- as a rebounder and he said he became a much better offensive rebounder after playing with us, and that's really what we worked on with him."
Hayward was one of the five players named to the all-tournament team in the summer and he has enjoyed quite a season as he has averaged 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while blossoming into a bona fide NBA prospect.
Hayward and Mack, who averages 14.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, said that the intensity of the practices that Dixon ran were key to the team's success as well as their own individual improvement because they weren't surprised by the speed or pace of any game once they got to New Zealand.
Mack, who scored 14 points in the Bulldogs' semifinal victory Saturday against Michigan State, especially was impressed with Dixon's intensity and passion because it is the same way Stevens has taught them to play at Butler.
"The first thing you better do for coach Dixon is learn to box out," Mack said. "And with him it is all about making sure you take care of the details, do your job and do the little things the right way, that's what makes a great coach."
Stevens, whose Bulldogs (33-4) play Duke (34-5) at 9:21 p.m. today at Lucas Oil Stadium in the national title game, said the experience was clearly an important one in the development of both players, not just because of what they learned but the confidence they gained from competing against some of the best players in the country.
"That experience helped those two grow," Stevens said. "More than anything, what they brought back to Butler, they came back with a belief that, 'You know, if we all do our jobs, we have a chance to be successful.'
"So anybody from Butler that ever has a chance to play for USA basketball, I'm going to strongly recommend they go try out for that team."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720. First Published April 5, 2010 4:00 AM