SALT LAKE CITY – Every day they walk into practice, they also walk onto a movie set – the one where they filmed the story about the little team that gets its big chance and lives out the unthinkable dream.
That’s the story of “Hoosiers.”
That’s also the story of Butler – the team that’s reminding everyone that big schools with big money don’t have a monopoly on everything in big-time sports.
Yes, the boys from Butler did it – getting 22 points from Gordon Hayward to defeat Kansas State 63-56 in the West Regional final Saturday and advance to the Final Four.
Next, the Bulldogs take their 24-game winning streak to downtown Indianapolis. Though only five miles from the Butler campus, it’s hard to think of many programs that have taken a longer, more unlikely road to get this close to a championship.
“It’d be just as cool if we moved it to Hinkle,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said of his team’s fieldhouse. “I’d be all for that.”
No such luck. Still, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs (32-4) are writing their own underdog story, even if they can’t really be called underdogs anymore.
Shelvin Mack scored 16 and Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley keyed an in-your-face defensive effort on K-State guards Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to help Butler become the first school from a true, mid-major conference to make the Final Four since George Mason in 2006 – a trip that also ended in Indianapolis.
Trailing almost the entire game, No. 2 Kansas State (29-8) rallied to tie it at 54 with 3:09 remaining.
But Butler didn’t fold, it only got better. The Bulldogs scored the next nine points to seal the game before Pullen’s shot at the buzzer dropped, but offered no consolation.
“It was a great experience, but it hurts that it had to end today,” Pullen said.
Enrollment at Butler is in the 4,500 range, about 15 of whom have reminded everyone why college basketball captures America’s heart this time every year.
They are weaving a story about the overlooked and under-appreciated getting their time in the limelight – the kind of tale every underdog, from Charlie Brown to Gene Hackman, has to love.
But make no mistake – this is not some scrappy, overmatched team that needed a break, no Danny and the Miracles, or Villanova shooting 79 percent to knock off mighty Georgetown.
This is a team that stood toe-to-toe with Syracuse on one night, then Kansas State two nights later, shutting down two power teams from power conferences.
Pullen and Clemente didn’t score a point for Kansas State until 15 seconds remained in the first half, and it was no matter of luck. Rather, it was the tough defense of Nored and Veasley that did it – smothering a pair of players who had combined for 53 points two nights earlier in a double-overtime win against Xavier.
Clemente finished with 18 and Pullen 14, but they shot a combined 11 for 30.
“Defensively, they just try to hound everybody, try to stay in the lane, pack it in so there’s nowhere to drive,” Pullen said. “Then they just send five to the glass every time. Did a good job rebounding.”
Led by Hayward’s nine boards, Butler won that contest, too, 41-29.
A great underdog story, most of America will call it.
Good bet, though, that the boys from Butler won’t settle with being happy to be there.
“Certainly this is going to be a highlight for all of us,” Stevens said. “But you’re always moving to the next thing.”