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.
Blog: Party at Butler's house
|Boards: College basketball | Butler | Kansas State|
|More regional coverage:
East | West | Midwest | South
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.
Next, the Bulldogs take their 24-game winning streak to downtown Indy. 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.
"This is probably the coolest thing that's ever happened in my life," Nored said.
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 the next, shutting down two power teams from power conferences with legitimate stars of their own.
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, in-your-face 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.
Lucky, plucky teams simply don't win the way Butler did. Much like in its 63-59 victory over Syracuse, the Bulldogs held the lead in this one for most of the night, but fell behind briefly toward the end.
Clemente made a 3-pointer with 4:49 left to cap an 8-0 run and give K-State its only lead of the game, 52-51. Teams like Butler are supposed to fold then, right?
Well, not quite.
Hayward got fouled going to the hole and made two free throws to take the lead back, and teammate Matt Howard made one more free throw to make it 54-52. Clemente dribbled for what seemed like forever for a layup to tie, and that was the last significant basket the Wildcats would make.
Coach Frank Martin wouldn't make excuses, but clearly that Xavier game took a lot out of the Wildcats -- and it showed at the end.
"We looked tired. We were sluggish but I don't think it was as much about our wrongdoing as it was Butler's right-doing," he said.
With the score tied at 54, Butler took the lead for good on the next possession when Hayward -- that rare NBA prospect playing at a mid-major -- stretched his entire 6-foot-9 frame to not only collect a too-high, alley-oop pass from Nored, but collect himself and make the shot.
"I've said it already lots of times," Hayward said. "Coach and my teammates put me in that position and sometimes you've just got to make a play, and I was lucky enough to hit it."
Pullen came back with an air ball and Butler pulled away from there, ending Kansas State's equally gritty quest -- an effort that will certainly gain the Wildcats more cachet in a state that has long thought about the Jayhawks first.
Big man Curtis Kelly also had 14 points for Kansas State, which shot 38 percent for the game and didn't make a basket outside of 15 feet in the first half.
Credit for that, once again, goes to the Bulldogs, coached by the 33-year-old Stevens, who has refused to buy into the underdog story.
Being a mid-major, he insists, is mainly about money and resources, not about 5-on-5 in a 40-minute game with nothing -- or everything -- on the line.
Stevens found the players who fit his style -- players who like to work hard, don't back down from a challenge and don't care that the big schools didn't come chasing after them.
They're players who loved Hinkle Fieldhouse, the home of the Bulldogs, but also a tourist stopover because it's where the 1980s classic Hoosiers, starring Hackman, was filmed.
"I can't tell you how many times I've watched that movie," said Hayward, a native of Brownsburg, Ind. "I lost count. Growing up in Indiana, I have watched it so many times. But I definitely love that movie."
Players who appreciate it certainly appreciate team basketball, Stevens said, and now his team will play in a much bigger venue -- Lucas Oil Stadium next Saturday against Michigan State or Tennessee. The stadium seats about 70,000 for basketball. Butler's home games -- all of them -- drew a total of about 90,000 all season.
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."