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O’Brien: Don’t underestimate Joe Butler and Minooka

The words “Minooka basketball” do not strike fear in anyone’s heart. They also don’t garner any respect.

“No matter who we are playing, when we walk in the gym people say that this Minooka team has no chance,” Indians coach Scott Tanaka said.

The area basketball scene has a definite hierarchy. Certain programs are always competitive. The names of the players change every year, but new schools rarely become fixtures in the Super 25. On the mythical pyramid of basketball prominence, Minooka would be right at the bottom. So even though the Indians have won the Southwest Prairie conference, even though they received the top seed at the Class 4A Lockport Sectional, the Indians have a massive chip on their shoulder.

“We got the number one seed and even our local paper is saying we will be upset in our regional,” Tanaka said. “That’s ok, we can use that.”

The No. 25 Indians (21-8, 12-2) have several competent players, but the key to their success is four-year starter Joe Butler.

“I don’t see anybody better, I’ll be honest,” Tanaka said. “In terms of grit, intensity, toughness. He is it, the best. And nobody knows about him in the state. We play such a slow-tempo style of basketball that Joe doesn’t put up the gaudy numbers that he could. He’s only averaging 6-10 shots per game. He’s the backbone to our team and the toughest kid I’ve ever coached.”

Butler scored 22 and grabbed eight rebounds to lead the visiting Indians to a 45-43 overtime victory against Oswego on Tuesday.

Butler is averaging 17 points this season. He scored or assisted on all but two baskets in the fourth quarter and overtime. His younger brother, Jonathan Butler, drove to the basket for the game-winning bucket with eight seconds to play in overtime.

“(Joe) has been phenomenal all year,” Jonathan Butler said. “It hasn’t surprised any of us, we expected it after he scored 32 points in a regional game at the end of last year.”

Brice Robinson led the Panthers (16-9, 8-6) with 16 points and senior Jacob Niesman added 13 points and seven rebounds.

The Indians joined the Super 25 two weeks ago. Tanaka was shocked.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw that,” Tanaka said. “People have downgraded our conference. I think our conference will show in the postseason how strong it is. We should get more publicity but we don’t because we don’t have a Division I palyer. We just have kids that work so hard. This was our first ever Southwest Prairie conference title, it is the school’s first since 1991 when they were in the Little Seven.”

Butler could definitely play college basketball, but he has his heart set on baseball. He’s committed to Illinois State.

“I’ve heard some colleges has asked about me playing basketball,” Butler said. “But I just told them not to bother, I’m definitely going to ISU to play baseball.”

Butler has some big plans before his basketball career ends though.

“We really believe we have a chance to make it down state,” Butler said. “If we do that it would be crazy, something Minooka has never seen. It would help change the way the program is perceived. Right now we have kids going to Providence and kids going to Joliet Catholic because they don’t think Minooka is a basketball school. I think we’ve started to change that a little bit already with our success this season.”