The Dagger - NCAAB

The run Butler made last year to the NCAA championship game will always be special. It was this generation's ultimate college hoops Cinderella story.

This run, though, is much more impressive.

It was roughly eight weeks ago when the Bulldogs suffered a shocking 62-60 road loss to Horizon League cellar dweller Youngstown State. They were 14-9 at that point and a disappointing 5-5 in conference play.

Now, they've once again reaffirmed the notion that, no matter where they are in the NCAA tournament field, you can never count against Butler.

They trailed Florida by 11 with 9:25 left on Saturday in New Orleans, forced overtime and scored clutch bucket after clutch bucket en route to a 74-71 win and their second Final Four berth in as many years.

Boyish-looking Brad Stevens turned himself into a top young sideline prospect last season, but this year truly proved just how strong of an all-around coach he actually is.

After that embarrassing early February loss in Ohio, Butler regrouped when many were ready to write them off for good as a one-hit wonder. Despite a hot finish to the regular season, it was still no guarantee that they'd make the NCAA tourney again without winning the Horizon League tournament.

Saturday marked their 13th consecutive victory, and now they'll book a trip to Houston, awaiting the winner of Sunday's Elite Eight contest between Kansas and upstart VCU.

A year ago, despite having never been on college basketball's biggest stage, the Bulldogs were on everyone's radar well before the NCAA tournament. They only lost four regular season games, blitzed through the Horizon League unscathed and earned a 5-seed.

After that magical month, the guy who nearly provided the greatest shot in college basketball history — sophomore forward Gordon Hayward — wisely left school early to be a lottery pick in June's NBA draft. He was their leading scorer (15.5 ppg) and rebounder (8.2 rpg). Returning three starters in 2010-11 didn't look nearly as impressive as it normally would without guys like Hayward and glue guy Willie Veasley.

Despite not losing again after the debacle at Youngstown State, they were set up for early failure in the NCAAs this time around as an 8-seed, drawing a hot Old Dominion squad in their opener — who they ousted on a Matt Howard buzzer-beater — then having to meet No. 1 seed Pitt two days later. We all know by now what happened there.

And they're still finding ways to survive.

During the postgame handshake between Stevens and Florida's Billy Donovan, the Butler coach could be seen on camera telling Donovan "You out-coached me."

Even if he did, the incredible contributions from the thinner-than-a-year-ago Bulldogs were symbolic of how they cleared hurdles all season long.

• Star guard Shelvin Mack overcame a first half ankle injury, then a cut over his left eye en route to a game-high 27 points. That heroic performance included a monster 3-pointer with just over a minute left in OT that gave Butler the lead for good.

• Their ultimate push back from a double-digit deficit was sparked by little-used reserve guard Chrishawn Hopkins, who in a short second half stint provided a 3-pointer and an outstanding assist on a Howard lay-up.

• They got a crucial and-one score 90 seconds into OT by freshman forward Khyle Marshall — A Sunshine State native who felt spurned by UF during his recruitment. He finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. Butler's reserves provided 23 points while Florida's chipped in only two.

• Starting big men Howard and Andrew Smith were abused in the first half — and the start of the second — by Florida's athletic duo of Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. But Butler's towers came up with more key hustle plays down the stretch, ultimately overcoming a physical disadvantage.

Stevens is again a rumored target of many larger programs looking to fill head coaching vacancies, but for him to go anywhere other than one of the nation's truly elite spots would just be senseless. He's at the wheel of college basketball's top little-program-that-could — One which has now become a March must-watch, no matter who the opponent is. He'd likely face ridiculously high expectations anywhere else, setting himself up too easily for failure.

The Bulldogs are 9-1 in their last 10 NCAA tournament games, which makes for a two-year run that only a few programs have ever experienced, and if it never gets better than this for Stevens at Butler, so be it.

One thing that the two Final Four runs have in common is that in both instances, Butler heads into the season's final weekend with no pressure. No one expected them to be there anyway.

No matter who rounds out the Final Four field, Butler will likely head to Houston as the absolute underdog.

So what?

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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