For all the Horizon League titles, 25-win seasons and Sweet 16 appearances that Butler has racked up this decade, the Bulldogs had never won a big enough game to transform their image from plucky underdog to marquee program.
Ladies and gentleman, this was that win.
Butler broke through the ceiling Thursday night with a 63-59 victory over top-seeded Syracuse, ousting an Orange team that entered the second week of the NCAA tournament as one of the favorites to win the national title. Senior Willie Veasley sank the biggest shot during the Bulldogs' game-clinching 11-0 run, firing a 3-pointer from the corner that caromed off the front rim, off the glass and in to give his team a four-point edge with less than two minutes remaining.
"I was already headed down the court because I figured it was going to go over the top," Veasley told reporters after the game. "I looked back, it came back down and went through. Just pure excitement. Just relief that we found that shot. I think it gave us a little cushion."
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs advance to their first-ever Elite Eight, where they will face either second-seeded Kansas State or sixth-seeded Xavier. A win in that game would give Butler a scenario few dreamed possible: The Bulldogs would go home to Indianapolis to play in the Final Four.
"I don't know how much Indianapolis is on our minds right now," Veasley said. "I know after leaving the locker room, just how excited everybody is that we're in the Elite Eight. We've got a couple days together as a team. Right now, before we can even think about Indianapolis, we got to think about either Kansas State or Xavier."
If Northern Iowa's second-round shocker over Kansas last Saturday is still this tournament's biggest upset, Butler's win over Syracuse cannot be far behind. Granted the Bulldogs have now won 23 in a row and have a better winning percentage the past four years than every Division I team but Kansas, but they also had never beaten a a No. 1 or 2 seed in the tournament until Thursday.
In 2001, they lost to second-seeded Arizona, 73-52. In 2003, they lost to top-seeded Oklahoma, 65-54. In 2007, they lost to top-seeded Florida, 65-57. And in 2008, they lost to second-seeded Tennessee in overtime, 76-71.
That progression represents a shrinking talent gap between Butler and the nation's elite programs. The Bulldogs proved they can play with anyone in the nation on Thursday, winning on a night they shot only 40 percent from the field and 6 of 24 from behind the arc by forcing 18 Syracuse turnovers, playing belly-to-belly defense and getting a few timely breaks in the closing minutes.
Either Kansas State or Xavier would be formidable opponents for Butler, but the Bulldogs already beat the Musketeers earlier this season and the Wildcats are certainly no more daunting than Syracuse.
Butler in the Final Four? In this wild, wacky, wonderful NCAA tournament, anything's possible.
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