SCHMIDT: For Cinderella Butler, clock strikes midnight

If Jimmy Butler were a literary term, he’d be a motif.

His recurring acts of toughness and breakneck hustle symbolize everything the Buzz Williams coaching tenure is about. Butler is a scrappy, pestering, nuisance of an underdog, just like his coach. Just like Marquette.

When Butler transferred here from Tyler Junior College prior to the 2008 season, nobody thought they would care when he graduated three years later, because frankly, nobody thought he was going to be that good. He was sort of a throw-in with his more highly touted teammate, Joe Fulce.

Well, Senior Night was yesterday. It was Butler’s last home game as a Golden Eagle, and as if he sensed the grandeur of the moment, he poured in a career-best 30 points. At times, Butler seemed to be the only Marquette player with a pulse during the loss to Cincinnati. The ultimate prognosis: People care. A lot.

It wasn’t just the points he scored or the rebounds he snagged or the two stunning game-winners he drilled last year that made him endearing. It’s the way he has played like being a Golden Eagle meant something special. It’s the way he took Marquette’s Napoleon complex and small-school mean-streak and made them his own.

Some things just go together. Like crazy and Lady Gaga. Butler and Marquette have always seemed to fit perfectly, which is a rarity in college hoops, considering most teams don’t maintain a constant identity from year to year, and most players are too busy signing agents to have personalities. Incredibly, Butler never even visited the campus when he decided to come here.

Now he’s a month away from finishing his career, and it’s hard to imagine him ever wearing anything other than blue and gold. He wore other things as well, things that can’t be dry-cleaned: bruises, bumps and thumps.

When you’re a 6-foot-7 forward who routinely clashes with people who need to mull over the clearance margin before walking beneath overpasses, injuries are inevitable. It’s an occupational hazard.

Yet Butler, ever the warrior, an underling in the land of the giants, stayed the course. Not only has he survived, he has thrived.

In his first collegiate start last season against Centenary on Nov. 13, he had 27 points and 13 rebounds. It was his coming out party, so to speak.

Now we’re already saying our goodbyes.

In praising Butler, I don’t want to overlook his fellow seniors whose Marquette careers are also coming to a close, guys like Fulce, guard Dwight Buycks and forward Rob Frozena. They’ve all contributed in their own way, especially Buycks, who has carried this team offensively multiple times, including a career game in an upset win over Notre Dame.

But this year is all about Butler, as last year was about forward Lazar Hayward and the year before was about the Big Three. He’s the guy who made the biggest impact, with the in-your-shorts defense and admirable fearlessness. And he’s the guy who will leave an irreplaceable void once he departs.

That’s going to be a topic for another day. Right now, Butler and Marquette still have work to do. They play Seton Hall on the road in the regular season finale Saturday, and then head to New York for the Big East Tournament.

Then the NCAA Tournament beckons.

Of course, Marquette will undoubtedly be an underdog in its opening match. Butler, the little senior that could, wouldn’t have it any other way.

One can only hope Butler’s memorable career will end with another literary term: happily ever after …