Little Butler is on the Brink of Something Big
INDIANAPOLIS - The image of late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano frantically scrambling for someone to hug after his sixth-seeded men's basketball team upset Houston to win the NCAA championship in 1983 is one of the greatest moments in tournament history.
In 1985, Villanova played in a classic. As a No. 8 seed, the Wildcats knocked off a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team to win the tournament.
Twenty-five years later, Butler is on the brink of giving America a story for the ages.
The Indianapolis-based university will play in the NCAA championship game Monday night and will try to knock off basketball royalty - the Duke Blue Devils - at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We're on a big stage now playing against the best teams in the country," Butler reserve Zach Hahn said. "That's something we've always wanted our whole lives. I think we're prepared for it."
Butler is the smallest school to reach the final in 40 years, yet it looms large here with the backing of the city's fans. Lucas Oil Stadium is just 6 miles from Butler's north-side campus.
The players have enjoyed standing ovations as they arrive and depart from restaurants. The school's pet bulldog, Blue II, was courtside for a pat on the head from players during introductions in Saturday's national semifinals, another homey touch.
Butler (33-4) kept its dream season alive by edging Michigan State 52-50 in the semifinals. The Bulldogs have won 25 games in a row - the longest streak by a national finalist since 1999. That 1999 team? The Blue Devils, who won 32 consecutive games before losing to Connecticut in the championship.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn't think Butler will make it 26. He praised the Bulldogs' stingy defense after his team's loss but also offered a blunt assessment for Monday's game.
"I'll be surprised if they give (Duke) a very good game," he said. "I think (Duke) will beat them by 10 or 15, and that's a lot."
Georgetown's John Thompson III, one of two coaches to face both teams this season, agrees, telling CNN Duke will win.
Feeling at home in Indianapolis might not be enough to topple Duke (34-5). The disparity between the programs is glaring.
Two tales in semifinals
In his 30 years at Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski, 63, has turned his school into a brand name. He has led the Blue Devils to three NCAA championships and coached the USA to a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics. He's an author, commercial spokesman and host of a satellite radio show.
Krzyzewski won his first of three championships in 1991 at 44; Butler coach Brad Stevens was 14.
Stevens, now 33, is the second-youngest coach in an NCAA tournament final. Branch McCracken is the only coach known to be younger, 31 when he guided Indiana to a national championship in 1940.
Told this game has David vs. Goliath written all over it, Stevens said, "It makes me feel good. David won."
Duke played its most dominant game of the tournament Saturday in beating West Virginia 78-57. Blue Devils perimeter players Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith combined to score 63.
Butler, meanwhile, barely survived against Michigan State. The Bulldogs lost forward Matt Howard and guard Shelvin Mack for stretches, Howard because of a mild concussion suffered when he hit his head on the floor after colliding with two players in the second half, and Mack because of dehydration and cramping. Mack said he will play, but Stevens said Howard will be a game-day decision.
Howard, a 6-8 junior, is the team's third-leading scorer with an 11.6-point average, but that has slipped in the tournament to 7.0. Mack has led the team from 3-point range in the tournament with 46.9 percent shooting.
Butler, a No. 5 seed, also was picked to lose against No. 1 seed Syracuse in the West Regional semifinals. A victory against the Orange sent Butler into the regional final, where it defeated No. 2 seed Kansas State. Duke was the only No. 1 seed remaining after the Elite Eight.
"Our whole team has fooled a lot of people," Mack said of opponents' tendency to overlook Butler despite its lofty status in the rankings most of the season. "We were in Salt Lake City and came out on the court and I think Syracuse was kind of laughing at us. They were shooting half-court shots. You get a little offended by that."
Bulldogs 'have gotten stronger'
Duke players aren't buying the David vs. Goliath theme.
"They've been a top-10 team the whole year," Scheyer said. "We know how great of a team they are."
Butler looks to leading scorers Gordon Hayward, a 6-9 sophomore who is averaging 16.6 points in the tournament, and Mack, averaging 16. As a group, however, the team has struggled with its shooting in the tournament (39.7 percent) and is dependent on defense. Whether it can slow Duke's scoring trio and contend with outstanding rebounder Brian Zoubek, a 7-1 center, is the big question. Duke shot 52.7 percent against West Virginia; Butler got by shooting 30.6 percent against Michigan State.
"We're about guarding people," Hayward said. "If we don't score, we still feel we can win with defense."
Krzyzewski would seem to have the coaching edge, except that Stevens has held his own. By Monday, he will have played against two Hall of Fame coaches in Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Krzyzewski and a probable future Hall of Famer in Izzo.
"They write books and I get to read them," Stevens said of the differences between him and that trio. He said it with an air of nonchalance.
"If it's just me against them, we're in trouble," he said of the wins against Boeheim and Izzo. "It's Butler that has beaten those teams. It has very little to do with me."
After Butler beat Michigan State, Stevens and his players declined to celebrate. The players headed for the locker room and Stevens walked across the court in routine fashion for his CBS interview.
"Inside I'm happy," Stevens said. "These guys they play so hard. I'm at peace with whatever happens. This is the only team I've been on where the practices in February and March were unbelievable. Usually you wear down.
"These guys have gotten stronger. And they do that at the end of games."
The Bulldogs have come far since the fall, when they lost against Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown. Their last loss was Dec. 22 at Alabama-Birmingham.
Saturday night, Stevens told a story of a Butler manager who was shooting video of a practice and, forgetting the microphone was on, said the team wasn't good enough to reach the Final Four.
"If you had watched us in November and December, you'd see we're a completely different team," Hayward said.
The last time Stevens attended a Final Four was in 2001, in his first season as a Butler assistant. He watched Duke win its third title. He didn't like his seat, which was way up high. The view was terrible.
"After that, I said I wouldn't go unless we were in it," he said.
Now he has the best seat in the house.