Sat Mar 27 08:51pm EDT
A quick glance at Mapquest shows that a five-mile drive down Capitol Avenue is all that separates Butler's campus from downtown Indianapolis.
Needless to say, the Bulldogs' road to an improbable hometown Final Four was a bit longer and more arduous than that.
Long regarded as the plucky underdog that plays in the same fieldhouse where the final scene from "Hoosiers" was shot, Butler has strived for years to shed that label and prove it belongs among the sport's heavweights. In the ultimate feel-good story of an NCAA tournament jam-packed with them so far, the Bulldogs did just that in Saturday's West Regional Final, pulling off a 63-56 win over Kansas State that guarantees the Final Four will have a hometown feel.
"I think this is what we expected at the beginning of the season," point guard Ronald Nored told reporters after the game. "We're not here to just go back to Indy and go to the Final Four and, you know, celebrate that way. We want to win the whole thing. But this is probably the coolest thing that's ever happened in my life. I'm just so thankful."
If George Mason's Final Four run in 2006 is remembered as the ultimate miracle run, Butler feels like a team capable of doing more damage once it gets there. The Bulldogs began this season ranked No. 11 in the polls, overcoming a disappointing start to win 24 straight, dominate the Horizon League and then take down the top two seeds in the West Region on the way to their first Final Four.
Whereas Michigan State coach Tom Izzo gathered his team together before the season last year and wrote "Ford Field" on a whiteboard, Butler players insist a hometown Final Four was never a spoken goal. The only time Butler coach Brad Stevens even allowed himself to dream of the possibility was after the Bulldogs' second-round win over Murray State when the team bus passed Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Final Four.
"That was the first time," he insisted. "When we first met as a team back during our pre-season workouts, we said that we need to prepare to win the next game and we need to try our best to win the next game. If you do that enough times, you end up winning the whole thing. That was the way we discussed it. We never talked about a goal or a Final Four."
What's most amazing about Butler's run is it's probably a year ahead of schedule. Point guard Ronald Nored is a freshman, wings Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack are sophomores and big man Matt Howard is a junior, leaving only two seniors in the Bulldogs' rotation.
For a team that young, Butler showed incredible poise after Kansas State roared back from a 10-point deficit to take a one-point lead with five minutes to go. Just like the Bulldogs did two nights earlier when Syracuse took a late lead, they calmly made the plays necessary to regain the lead, regaining it for good on a Hayward alley-oop layup with 1:02 to play.
"This is a very special moment in our life," Mack said. "We all believed in each other. That's the main thing that kept us focused throughout the whole tournament. When we was down by one with three minutes left in the game, we still believed in each other. Settled down, ready to go."