INDIANAPOLIS – Little Butler has faced one big test after another in its magical run through the NCAA tournament.
And the biggest awaits in Monday night’s title game: Duke, winner take all.
“One thing about us is there’s never a sense of fear,” Ronald Nored, Butler’s top defender, said. “We’re confident in everything we do.”
They’d better be. Butler (33-4) is playing for its first national title – in its hometown no less – and its proud fans will be thrilled no matter what the final score is. Duke (34-5) is a three-time national champion, so accustomed to playing on the biggest stage that its last appearance nine years ago in the title game is considered a lifetime.
The Blue Devils are rolling, too, crushing a West Virginia team that many considered the best of the Big East 78-57 in the second semifinal. Duke was so overpowering, it could have played three against five – Jon Scheyer (23), Kyle Singler (21) and Nolan Smith (19) – and still won.
But there are plenty of folks who love to hate the Blue Devils, and they’ll be happy to join the Butler bandwagon.
“As a Butler coach and a Butler fan, I have no doubt I’m going to be proud of them at the end of the game,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said after his squad’s 52-50 victory over Michigan State on Saturday night. “I think you take some peace with that and say, ‘Give it all you can.’ That’s what our guys are trying to do.”
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs have already given basketball fans in Indiana – and beyond – a great story. The tiny school – enrollment is just 4,200 – knocked off top-seeded Syracuse and No. 2 seed Kansas State last weekend, the only Final Four team to beat the top two seeded teams in its region.
Then it took down Michigan State, whose six Final Four appearances in the last 12 years are the best of any school in the country.
Though it is led by Gordon Hayward, the baby-faced, smooth-shooting forward who could play at any school, the Bulldogs pride themselves on winning “The Butler Way.” That’s defense, ball control, discipline and teamwork, and all of it was on display against the Spartans on Saturday night.
Butler made the offense-by-committee that had gotten Michigan State this far look more like a free-for-all, and forced the Spartans into foul trouble. Perhaps most shockingly, the Bulldogs outmuscled the bigger, bulkier Spartans, leading Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to compare them to a Big Ten team, his ultimate compliment.
Butler has now held 12 of its last 13 opponents under 60 points, including all five tournament foes. But Duke’s Big Three will surely test that.