You can’t spell Bulldogs without a D
INDIANAPOLIS – So Butler went nearly 11 second-half minutes without a basket and won. The Bulldogs shot 30.4 percent from the field and beat Michigan State 52-50 anyway. They dished just five assists and got outrebounded and the Bulldogs – the Butler Bulldogs! – are going to play for the national title on Monday.
And you want to discount their chances now?
Butler in the finale is improbable. The last school from a smaller conference without a major football program to play for the title was Indiana State in 1979. The Sycamores had Larry Bird though. Butler, on the other hand …
“It seems like we can’t throw it in the ocean and we’re standing on the beach,” said forward Gordon Hayward.
Brad Stevens, the 33-year-old coach who never gets rattled, could only shrug.
“Well, obviously I didn’t think 15-for-49 was a great way to approach this game, and I never would have dreamed we would have won if we shot 15-for-49,” he said. He later added though, that at no point in the game did he think Butler would lose.
“I trust my guys,” Stevens said.
This is the most stunning part of the Butler story. Not just how far the Bulldogs have come, but how ugly they’ve looked in getting there. Butler won’t scare Duke, which it will face for the title Monday. Not that it matters. They haven’t scared anyone this entire tournament. At least not until the other team gets on the court and discovers a pack of wild Bulldogs harassing them on every possession.
Five games into this tournament and no opponent has gotten out of the 50s – the Bulldogs allowing a miserly 55.2 points a game in the NCAA tournament. Butler is winning with defense and whatever Jedi mind tricks Stevens employed to get them to buy wholly into the team concept.
“We have guys who’d rather guard the last shot than take it,” he said. “They care about winning. They really do. It’s not about them; it’s about the name on the front of the jersey.”
Stevens said all of this while standing outside the Butler locker room, which was subdued considering the magnitude of what the program just accomplished. The Bulldogs are happy to be in Monday’s title game, but they sure aren’t satisfied. They think they are going to win the title. They really do. It made perfect sense to them that they could shoot so poorly and win. It was natural that the difference was two clutch free throws with six seconds left by a guy shooting 25 percent from the line in the tournament.
Building such confidence has been a long time coming. When practice started last fall, Stevens told the team that it could get to this point.
“You know, if we focus and do our jobs, then why can’t we play for a national championship?” he said.
His players didn’t believe him then, of course. Butler is a good program, but, come on. It doesn’t play in front of big crowds. The school has just 4,200 students. Other schools pay their coaches more than Butler spends on everything – from salaries to ankle tape. Butler still operates like a college team should. Some of the players had to attend class on Friday. Stevens said he didn’t get much sleep early in the week because his daughter was sick and he had to stay up and take care of her.
This is the exact opposite of the quasi-professional organizations that produce championship game teams.
So, Stevens’ preseason pep-talk was taken only so seriously. The coach is always spouting these positive messages like, “live trying,” so the players figured it was just some kind mind game to get them to play together and maximize their potential. And that potential was probably the Sweet 16or something like that considering they don’t have much of an offense.
One day team manager Ryan McLaughlin, who’s nickname is “McLovin,” was even overheard on a practice film mocking some expert who had predicted the Bulldogs would make the Final Four.
“Maybe they didn’t all believe me,” Stevens said with a laugh. “But, you know, enough of them did that, hey, we’re here.”
Slowly they came to the conclusion that anything was possible if they just stopped the other team. That was it, just play defense. This is the ultimate survive and advance event, the score Monday will start at 0-0. There are no style points awarded for getting there.
It allowed the players to never get tight as they clanged jumpers, missed bunnies and put together offensive possessions of epic failure. They knew all they had to do was go to the other side and play some defense and watch Michigan State match their futility.
You simply won’t find a team more committed to playing defense.
“There was never a reason to panic,” said forward Avery Jukes. “We were up. We were winning the game. You never lose confidence on offense. Coach always says, ‘It’s a law of averages. Eventually you’re going to make some.’ “
Actually, the law never came. The Bulldogs made just one basket in the final 12:18 of the game – a Gordon Hayward layup with 1:36 left. They won anyway.
“Maybe next game,” Jukes laughed.
The one on Monday, the one for the national championship, the one that no one (even the Bulldogs) thought Butler would reach, let alone this way.
Who cares if they can’t throw it in the ocean? There aren’t any oceans in Indiana anyway.