HOUSTON — Before every basketball game, Shelvin Mack writes the same two letters on his sneakers.
The mantra, Mack says, is his reminder to himself that "you're not always going to play perfect. But you move on to the next play, worry about the next shot and everything will be all right."
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It is probably not surprising that "Mr. Forget It" has never watched the tape of Butler's 2010 NCAA Tournament championship game loss to Duke.
"I've watched bits and pieces," Mack said Sunday at Reliant Stadium, "but it's over with. We have a different chance tomorrow night to make our own story."
Isn't it amazing? A year after the college basketball community celebrated the once-in-a-lifetime improbability of a small private school from a relatively minor athletics conference playing for the NCAA crown, Butler — minus an NBA lottery pick off last season's roster — is back to try it again against Connecticut.
Along with the quirky but clutch big man Matt Howard and boy-genius coaching whiz Brad Stevens, no one is more responsible for Butler's Cinderella Run 2.0 than Mack.
The former Bryan Station star lit up top-seeded Pittsburgh for 30 points in the round of 32, dropped 27 on SEC regular-season champ Florida in the Elite Eight and scorched Virginia Commonwealth for 24 points (hitting five of six treys) in the national semifinals.
Not bad for a guy that the so-called big schools didn't have much time for during most of his recruitment.
"I think he's going to be a pro, certainly," UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said Sunday of Mack. "He's kind of gone under the radar nationally when we talked about all the players of the year. He can match up with anybody."
Whatever happens Monday night in the Lone Star State, Mack has already secured a legacy as one of the three most significant basketball players produced in Kentucky in the 21st century.
Lexington's best since?
Fill in the blank on this sentence. Having been a standout player on back-to-back teams that reached the NCAA finals, Mack is the best basketball player from Lexington since ...
David Graves? Jaron Brown? Darnell Burton? Melvin Turpin? Dirk Minniefield? Jack Givens?
"Oh wow. I think you have to say Jack Givens," former Bryan Station Coach Champ Ligon said Sunday.
I think I would say that, too.
As for the state, in the 21st century the most significant men's basketball player produced in Kentucky is obviously Boston Celtics star Rajon Rondo. The ex-UK guard, however, didn't fully grow into his stardom until the NBA.
Before this year, the most important college player produced in the commonwealth in the 2000s was former Mason County star Chris Lofton (Tennessee). What Mack's surge through the 2011 NCAA tourney has done in my mind is put him on the same level as Lofton, maybe ahead of him.
Which means that in an era where high-level basketball talent production has been scarce in the commonwealth, the two best college players both had to leave the state.
Mack and UK
On Sunday, the national sports media peppered Mack with questions about his recruitment and why a Lexington-produced college star was not playing for his hometown university.
"Growing up, I was a UK fan," Mack said.
Ligon, who coached the Butler guard in high school, says Kentucky did not get in early on his star player. Nor did any other "big schools."
"We never heard from them," Ligon said. "But even a lot of the mid-majors were not very intense (toward recruiting Mack). They were like, 'we don't like his shot. We're not sure he's a point guard. We're not sure he's quick enough.' It drove me crazy. I always knew what Shelvin could do."
Butler saw Mack playing with a Cincinnati-based AAU team. Stevens liked that Mack was willing to set up teammates on a star-studded summer team. He also noticed that when Mack drove around a defender "no one ever got back around him," the Butler coach says.
Mack did his homework, liked the idea of a small school and an offensive system "where you run pick-and-roll on pretty much every play," Mack said. "It's a guard's offense. Plus, I wanted to go somewhere where I could play right away."
He committed to Butler in January 2008.
Only later did UK finally show interest, Ligon said.
"Even then, I never talked directly with Billy Gillispie," Ligon said of the Kentucky coach at the time. "It was real indirect, stuff like 'is (Mack) still committed (to Butler) if we say we're interested?'"
Mack stuck with Butler.
"I could have gone to UK," Mack said. "I felt like it wasn't the best fit for me. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life to come to Butler University."
Amazingly, after UK fell to UConn on Saturday in the Final Four, it means that Mack and Butler have done better in March than Kentucky in every season the Bryan Station grad has been at the Indianapolis school.
"I wish nothing but the best for their program," Mack said Sunday of Kentucky. "I wish they had the opportunity to be here tomorrow. It didn't work out that way."
Mack vs. Kemba
UConn star Kemba Walker and Mack were both among the collegians selected last summer to work against the NBA stars that comprised the U.S. National Team. The two became friends and stay in touch via texting.
Said Mack: "On the plane ride here, I was looking at some videos. I recorded some personal videos of just me, him (Walker) and Nolan (Smith, the Duke star) just hanging out in our room, just having a good time."
Now, Mack and Walker will face each other with the national title at stake.
Said Walker of Mack: "I'd put him right up there. He doesn't get a lot of recognition. When his team is playing in the national championship game, what more can you say?"
Even if he's never watched a full replay of Butler's near-miss against Duke a season ago, Mack recalls how the moment felt.
"You go back to the locker room, only thing you can think of are plays you did wrong, things you could have done to change the outcome," Mack said. "We don't want to have that same feeling, have those regrets again."
Suffice to say, an NCAA championship game with a different outcome is one thing Mr. Forget It would willingly remember forever.