Called everything from a Cinderella team to a legitimate contender for the national championship, Butler is a team of many titles. But for head coach Brad Stevens, names don’t mean anything.
“I don’t mind being called a Cinderella or a mid-major team,” Stevens said. “We don’t have the resources that other teams have, that’s a fact. But resources don’t play. You have five guys with heart and everything else, they play. I’m not too concerned about the other stuff.”
Coming from behind in the second half of all four tournament games thus far and trailing Murray State, Syracuse and Kansas State in the final five minutes, the No. 5 Bulldogs (32-4) have had their hearts tested throughout their entire NCAA Tournament run. Against No. 1 Syracuse, Butler controlled the pace of the game and harassed the Orangemen into 18 turnovers. In their Elite 8 matchup against No. 2 Kansas State, the Bulldogs made up for their lack of size and outrebounded their opponent by 12. Butler kept both foes to fewer than 60 points. This performance allowed the team to claim a spot on the floor this Saturday when it plays No. 5 Michigan State in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Despite facing improbable odds and tough situations, freshman Andrew Smith said that his team has stayed calm throughout the Tournament.
“We didn’t get rattled,” Smith said. “We just stayed the course and played our game.”
Duke senior Brian Zoubek said that although he is solely focused on the Blue Devils’ upcoming game against No. 2 West Virginia, he doesn’t undervalue the Bulldogs’ place in the Final Four.
“What they have done is great,” Zoubek said. “They have some really talented players that didn’t get attention. They obviously have a chip on their shoulder because of that, and they are playing like it and playing great basketball.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs have surprised analysts and fans alike with their unlikely tournament run—but Butler is not the underdog in the traditional sense. The team has won 24 games in a row entering the contest against Michigan State and has made the Sweet 16 three times this decade. The Bulldogs are in the Tournament for the ninth time in the past 14 years, but this is the first time the squad will stay on for the Final Four.
Butler’s success is often attributed to Stevens, who made a life-changing decision in 2000. He left his job as a marketing representative at the medicine manufacturer Eli Lilly to pursue a college coaching career. Becoming head coach in 2007, Stevens has directed the Bulldogs to a 86-14 record in his first three years. Stevens has relied on his commanding knowledge of the game to lead a team of not terribly athletic players, only two of whom are taller than 6-foot-3, to the Final Four. With 86 total wins and three NCAA bids under his belt, Stevens has one of the greatest starts to a career in college coaching history.
Stevens said the key to his achievement comes from his drive to perform as well as he can at everything he does.
“I was told by a person at [Eli] Lilly early on in my time that the secret is just do your job to the best of your ability and don’t worry about anything else,” he said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do. So I’ve never put a timeline on anything. It’s always just been about trying to do whatever job I’m assigned well.”
Adding more excitement to the Bulldogs’ Tournament run, Butler will be the first team to play a Final Four in its hometown since UCLA in 1972. While they have struggled to sell out their stadium in the past, Stevens said that the Bulldogs have solid fan support, and the environment during home games is always loud and lively despite the empty seats.
Even with the Lucas Oil Stadium being just a few miles from Butler’s campus, Stevens doesn’t think the fans are going to be a deciding factor come Saturday.
“Everybody is talking about us playing at home,” Stevens said. “Michigan State won a Final Four in Indianapolis in 2000…. This is Butler country, but it’s also Big Ten country. It’s not like it’s going to be an all-Butler crowd on Saturday.”
Indianapolis may be special to Butler in particular, but Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that there is something about the Circle City and its unique relationship to college basketball that is special for every team.
“It has been a great place to have a Final Four,” Kryzewski said. “I love a Final Four where you are playing and the people can just walk around. There is a spirit there.... It’s such a good town and a good sports city that having it right there adds a lot to it.”
Bringing home a national title home come Monday would mean tremendous things for the Bulldogs’ program and its fans—even if home is just down the road.
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