Butler Surprise Among This Final Four Class
SALT LAKE CITY - When jump-shooting Indiana native Gordon Hayward thought he was going to be about the same size as his 5-10 parents, he worked on his ball-handling skills and dreamed about becoming the next John Stockton or Steve Nash.
He loved the little guys.
Then he outgrew his dream, shooting up to 6-1, then 6-8, and a couple of Big Ten teams started to show interest.
But he still loved the little guys.
So he chose tiny Butler University, a private school of about 4,500 students on the north side of Indianapolis. In basketball, Butler is famous mainly for being a part of someone else's basketball dream: Its gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse, was the site both of underdog Milan's famous Indiana state championship over Muncie Central and the set for one of the most beloved of all underdog movies - Hoosiers - that was based on Milan's triumph.
Two years later, Hayward is even bigger - a 6-9 forward with a likely NBA future. Butler is bigger, too, and now a symbol of how the gap has closed between traditional college basketball powers from major conferences and so-called "mid-major" teams and conferences such as Butler and its Horizon League.
Hayward and his Butler Bulldogs blurred the lines between the little guys and the big boys by upsetting No. 1 seed Syracuse and No. 2 seed Kansas State in the NCAA tournament's West Regional.
They're 32-4, have won 24 consecutive games (the nation's longest winning streak) and are headed to the school's first-ever appearance in the Final Four in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
Talk about making a run to the Final Four. The Bulldogs could do it easily. The downtown stadium is a five-mile jog south of their campus. They're the first team to play in a Final Four in their hometown since UCLA won the title in Los Angeles in 1972.
The Bulldogs will be joined in the Final Four by, essentially, the big boys. They will play Big Ten power Michigan State, like Butler a No. 5 seed but participating in its sixth Final Four in 12 years. The other semifinal pits blueblood Duke, a No. 1 seed from the Atlantic Coast Conference, and West Virginia, a No. 2 seed from the Big East Conference.
In this foursome, Butler is certainly the little guy. But the Bulldogs are not the out-of-nowhere shock No. 11 seed that George Mason was in the 2006 Final Four. Actually, Butler spent much of the season in the upper half of the USA TODAY/ESPN top 25 coaches' poll.
In today's college basketball, there are blurry lines between, say, Duke and Butler and Murray State, a No. 13 seed that upset Vanderbilt in the first round and lost to Butler by two points in the second round.
"Once you throw it up, anybody can win in any game, at any site," says Jeff Hathaway, Connecticut athletics director and current member of the NCAA basketball committee. "Butler has earned this. They've done a great job."
Said Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, a former chairman of the NCAA basketball committee, "There's parity, and it's been coming on for a while. What it shows is, there's great college basketball and great players everywhere. With the limitations on scholarships that were imposed years ago, there's talent spread everywhere. The attraction of the tournament is that it reaches into every nook and cranny of this country. And now there are good players in every nook and cranny, and it's manifested itself here in this tournament."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo calls it "a bizarre year. Usually the (No.) 1's and maybe some 2's are a notch above the rest." This year, however, "there's a lot of parity and I think a lot of teams (are) even. And yet, this is not the normal year. I'm not sure it'll be like this every year."
It's never been like this at Butler. When its 63-56 win over Kansas State was complete Saturday and the Bulldogs were cutting down the nets in Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena, some traveling Butler fans shouted, "Let's Go Home! Let's Go Home!"
The giant domed stadium that is home to the NFL's Indianapolis Colts has a built-in fan favorite in this Final Four.
"That dome is huge," says Butler senior forward Willie Veasley. "Being in our backyard, I can only imagine how many Butler fans are going to be there."
They might not all be Butler grads, either.
That's because, like Hayward, we love the little guys, too, and Butler, despite having been to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 two other times in the previous seven years (2003, 2007), and despite having earned a No. 5 seed, still has the look and feel of, well, little guys.
Back in Indianapolis, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who said he has been attending Bulldogs games for years, watched the regional final with fans at a local bar.
"To me, the Butler team personifies the state of Indiana and Indiana basketball," he said. "They have a lot of Hoosier kids, and they play like a team. No one hot dogs, and there's no real ego that you can find. And they're good students. You've got math majors and finance majors on that team, and to see them doing what they're doing - I just think it's a message to every sports fan in America."
Butler coach Brad Stevens, a baby-faced, jump-shooting Hoosier himself (he played at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.), is OK with any underdog cliche - David, Cinderella, Hoosiers, mid-major, etc. - you want to attach to his team.
"I think it's great," he says. "Why wouldn't you want to be that? Why wouldn't you want to be an overachiever? That's what we want to be."
Stevens, 33, couldn't be any more different than the grizzled veteran coach played by Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. After finishing his playing career at DePauw, where he earned an economics degree, Stevens was on a fast track in the marketing department of Indianapolis pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly.
But he chucked all that and took a job as a Butler assistant coach under Thad Matta in 2000. When Matta left to take the coaching job at Ohio State, Stevens remained on the staff as an assistant to Todd Lickliter. When Lickliter left to coach at Iowa, Stevens was promoted. He's in his third year as head coach and his record is 88-14, the most wins by a Division I coach after three years.
He's young enough to cut up with the fellas, which you might have seen on TV Saturday when Stevens exchanged chest bumps - well, actually, spinning back bumps - with Butler walk-on freshman forward Emerson Kampen after the Kansas State victory.
Why Kampen, who has played all of 12 minutes this season?
"It all started with me doing it with Gordon and then (guard) Shelvin (Mack) during starting lineups," Kampen says.
Stevens watched from a distance and saw how it was bringing his team together - the walk-on having fun with the team's two biggest stars - and then decided to join the fray after Butler beat Murray State to get to the Sweet 16.
"Coach just came into the locker room after the game and started pointing at me," Kampen says. "So he jumped up and we did it. We did it again after the Syracuse game."
With the clock winding down Saturday and the Bulldogs on the verge of victory, Stevens strayed down to the end of the bench and told Kampen he'd better get ready to jump high on this one.
Kampen teases Hayward that Stevens jumps a lot higher than Hayward.
"Emerson said that? That's what I'm talkin' about," Stevens says, smiling broadly. "I probably would have dunked that thing when Gordon laid it off the glass."
Nobody dunks a lot at Butler, even though the baskets at Hinkle are, as everybody who has seen Hoosiers knows, 10 feet high, just like everywhere else.
The Bulldogs aren't known for their SportsCenter highlights or fancy plays. But there's talent there, and there's a way of doing things there. It's called, sometimes in reverential tones, The Butler Way.
It's an attitude of working hard, earning trust, believing in teammates, doing the right things and playing each possession as if the game depended on it. Maybe you just have to see it to believe it, but there's something about the Butler Way that works when everything seems to be crashing down on the Bulldogs.
In the regional semifinal victory against Syracuse, the Bulldogs led most of the way, then surrendered the lead late in the game after a furious Syracuse rally. But then the Bulldogs somehow righted themselves and stole back the momentum.
The same thing happened against Kansas State.
Where does that sense of calm, that refusal to rattle, come from?
"From coach," Veasley says. "He leads, we follow. When those big runs came, Coach called a timeout and said a few calm words. Then he said he believes in us, he loves us and we're going to win the game."
Hayward was crucial late in both games. He's a matchup problem for the best of teams, a long, agile forward who can shoot from outside but also get to the basket with a couple of bounces. He leads Butler with 15.2 points a game and scored 22 Saturday.
Mack, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Lexington, Ky., is the other main scorer. He's not particularly quick, but he's a playmaker with a quick release.
The oddest thing about Mack is that he might be the only basketball player in Indiana who has never seen Hoosiers. Seriously, the dude has never seen Hoosiers.
"People (have been) getting on me to watch the movie, but I haven't found time to fit it into my schedule," he says.
(Upon hearing this, Stevens laughs hysterically.)
Matt Howard is a 6-8 junior forward, a post player with a hard-nosed, blue-collar kind of game.
Ronald Nored, a 6-0 guard from Homewood, Ala., is a defensive bulldog, the Horizon League's co-Defensive Player of the Year.
So, if Nored is the best defensive player on a team known for playing tough defense, is he the quintessential Bulldog?
"No," Nored says. "If I had to pick that, I'd say it's Willie Veasley."
Ah, yes, Veasley, the only senior starter. He's too small - 6-3 - to be a forward, but he doesn't handle the ball enough to be a guard. And he doesn't score enough - 10.3 points a game - to be a star.
But he's got just enough grit and heart to be the Bulldogs' leader - and to have joined Nored on the Horizon's all-Defensive team.
"Willie's probably the least-looked-at player among our starting five and he's probably the one who keeps us together the most," Nored says.
"I look up to Willie for the things he's done before I got here and the things I see him do every day on the court."
At the West Regional, Veasley went from guarding one of the most athletic players in the country, 6-7 Syracuse All-America forward Wes Johnson, one night to guarding one of the fastest players in the country, Kansas State 6-1 guard Denis Clemente, two days later.
"He's our Shane Battier," Stevens says, referring to the former Duke star and current Houston Rockets role player known for being a great team leader.
"Hey, there are a lot of great players out there, but they don't positively impact their team. Willie's done it from the get-go. He's a hard guy for me to see not playing any more at Butler after this year. I want him to continue his career as long as we can. He's a big reason we're where we are."
A big reason, who is relatively small.
Butler is bigger, yes, but not that big.