Commentary

Bulldogs set to be hometown heroes

Originally Published: March 27, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

SALT LAKE CITY -- Athletic director Barry Collier knows by heart the route from Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler University campus to Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

"East on 49th Street, right on Capital and drive about five miles," Collier said.

The No. 5 Bulldogs' path to next week's Final Four in their hometown of Indianapolis was a lot more arduous -- and it's sure to be a lot more memorable.

Two days after upsetting No. 1-seeded Syracuse in the West Regional semifinals, Butler stunned No. 2-seeded Kansas State 63-56 at EnergySolutions Arena in Saturday's final to punch its ticket to the Final Four. The Bulldogs will be the first team to play in the Final Four in its hometown since UCLA in 1972.

"It's just very special," Butler forward Gordon Hayward said. "It would be special anywhere we went, but the fact we get to play in front of our home crowd kind of makes it a little more special."

The Bulldogs, who have won 24 games in a row, will play the winner of Sunday's Midwest Regional final between No. 5-seeded Michigan State and No. 6-seeded Tennessee in next week's national semifinals.

[+] EnlargeGordon Hayward
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireGordon Hayward posted his tournament highs (22 points, nine rebounds) against Kansas State.

"I don't care about being called a Cinderella or a mid-major," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We don't have resources that other teams have, and that's just a fact. But resources don't win games. We have a lot of guys with big hearts. Why wouldn't you want to be called that? Why wouldn't you want to be an overachiever?"

As much of a cliché as it might be, the Bulldogs are becoming a modern-day version of the Hollywood film "Hoosiers." By now, though, the Bulldogs should probably be considered less of an underdog than tiny Milan High School, which was the inspiration for the movie, after it won the 1954 Indiana high school basketball tournament.

Hinkle Fieldhouse -- the Bulldogs' actual home gym -- was the setting for mythical Hickory High School's state championship game in the movie, as well as Milan High School's actual landmark victory more than a half-century ago.

Stevens shows the movie during Butler's summer basketball camps. During the past two weeks of the NCAA tournament, he has received text messages and e-mails from friends, who often quote "Hoosiers."

"You always get 'Hoosiers' quotes," Stevens said. "I got an e-mail from a good friend of mine the other day that said, 'One more, Ollie.' It was fun. You know, not a week goes by where somebody who hasn't seen [Hinkle] Fieldhouse doesn't walk in and at least mouth, 'Hickory.'"

When "Hoosiers" was released on Nov. 14, 1986, Stevens was 23 days past his 10th birthday and none of his 15 players had been born.

"I can't really tell you how many times I've watched that movie," Hayward said. "I think everyone growing up in Indiana watches that movie. I've lost count."

Hayward, who was named the West Regional's most outstanding player after scoring 22 points with nine rebounds against Kansas State, already has lived every Indiana boy's dream. He hit the winning shot at the buzzer in Brownsburg High School's 40-39 victory over Marion High in the 2008 Class 4A state championship.

It's just very special. It would be special anywhere we went, but the fact we get to play in front of our home crowd kind of makes it a little more special.

-- Butler's Gordon Hayward

Now, Hayward is living every college basketball player's dream -- a trip to the Final Four and 17 miles from his hometown, no less.

"It's a dream come true," Hayward said. "Hopefully, we won't disappoint the fans."

This much is clear: Butler's players are not satisfied by just making the Final Four. The Bulldogs insist they're going home to win a national championship.

"I hope your goal's not to finish fourth," Stevens said, earlier this week.

And at a Final Four that will include no more than one No. 1 seed (Duke plays No. 3-seeded Baylor in the South Regional final on Sunday; No. 1 seeds Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse have already been eliminated), Butler might darn well be the favorite playing in its backyard.

"We're not here to just go back to Indy and go to the Final Four," guard Ronald Nored said. "We want to win the whole thing."

What's the only bad news about going home to play for college basketball's national championship? Stevens said his players' lives will return to status quo. After being absent from school for the past eight days, Stevens said his players will be required to attend class every day next week.

Stevens isn't even sure if his players will spend the night in a downtown hotel like the other three Final Four participants will do, or if they'll just sleep in their dormitory rooms and apartments. Stevens and his wife, Tracy, planned a Coaches vs. Cancer dinner months ago to coincide with the Final Four. Stevens said the event will go on as planned Friday night.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBrad Stevens' players aren't satisfied with just making it to the Final Four.

Stevens almost wonders if playing the Final Four somewhere other than Indianapolis might not be better for his team.

"Part of you really wants to get on a plane," Stevens said.

When did Stevens know this team was special? When he saw Hayward and guards Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored practice together for the first time two years ago.

"I knew Gordon was very good and I knew Shelvin was pretty good," Stevens said. "I knew everyone would follow Ronald. It's hard not to dream a little bit at that point, but you don't expect this to happen."

Stevens wasn't sure how good this team would be after it lost four of its first 12 games. The Bulldogs lost to Minnesota and Clemson at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif., in November, lost to Georgetown in the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 8 and then lost at UAB by 10 points on Dec. 22.

"You weren't here in December," Stevens said. "We weren't very special and we weren't very good. That's what got us here."

After the loss to the Blazers on the road, Stevens pulled his team into a meeting and showed them their Horizon League runner-up trophy from last season.

"I thought we might have to win every game in conference just to make the NCAA tournament," Stevens said.

On Saturday, Stevens was hoisting the West Regional championship trophy.

"City of Indy, we're coming home!" he screamed to the crowd.

The Bulldogs are going home and it figures to be one helluva homecoming.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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