All Aboard the Butler Bandwagon
The Bulldogs Will Have Everyone Backing Them in Indianapolis, including Gene Hackman
By JASON GAY
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Head coach Brad Stevens of the Butler Bulldogs celebrates with teammates after defeating Kansas State during the west regional final of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Don't care if you're an NCAA tournament lunatic or an agnostic. Don't care if you're just a West Virginia win away from swiping that not-sure-if-it's-technically-legal office pool. Don't care if you're Magic Johnson and starred at Michigan State. Don't care if you have fabulous hair and can walk on water, like Duke.
This Final Four, you're rooting for Butler University.
Just hop on the blue Bulldog bandwagon. Don't be embarrassed—we're all going to be shameless about this one. A couple weeks back, most of us barely knew who they were. If someone asked you where Butler University was, you'd have said "Er ... in Butler?"
But this week, we're all Butler diehards. After another entertainingly volatile tournament—who'd have imagined a 2010 Final Four without a squad from Kansas, or that Cornell even played basketball?—the Bulldogs are basking in unlikely national hoops glory. They've never made a Final Four; they're the smallest school left; they're the hometown favorite, located just a bounce pass away from Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. Butler doesn't have a single starter taller than 5-foot-2; they travel to away games on mules; and until last year, they played all of their home games by candlelight on a dirt floor.
Okay, maybe we're overdoing it on the underdog thing.
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The truth is, Butler's not really a starry-eyed NCAA Cinderella, like 11th-seeded George Mason was in the 2006 Final Four. These fifth-seeded Bulldogs have won 24 games in a row, have made the Sweet Sixteen three times this decade and are much respected by the college-hoops cognoscenti. This tournament, they knocked off a No. 1 (Syracuse) and a No. 2 (Kansas State) to get to Indy. Their success shouldn't shock anyone, not even Barack Obama, who had them, zoink, falling to Syracuse.
But we're installing Butler as our honorary Final Four darlings anyway. It's schools like Butler that make the NCAA tournament a genuine treat, even if we've never come close to winning an office pool, and need to be locked in a hermetically-sealed tube as soon as CBS plays the first notes of "One Shining Moment," a song so corny it makes Barry Manilow sound like Lou Reed.
Besides, the tournament's last weekend could use a nice, viewer-friendly, heart-tuggy storyline. Despite the presence of hate-'em-cause-you-love-'em Duke, this is not exactly a glamorama Final Four. It's so low-watt, in fact, CBS just asked Tiger Woods if he can come back a week earlier—or at least come out at halftime and awkwardly apologize for something.
But a run by Butler would electrify this Final Four. The Bulldogs will be the first team to play in the Final Four in its hometown since UCLA in 1972. They should get to sleep in their own beds, order their own greasy campus pizza and they won't even be able to weasel out of term papers. They're led by a white-hot coach, Brad Stevens, who is 33 and looks 20 years younger—in aging cycles, that's known as a "reverse Jeff Van Gundy."
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Butler's also got a handy pop culture entry point to stir those fickle casual fans. Let us be the 10,000th person to point out that Butler's home court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, was utilized in the underdog flick "Hoosiers," for the scene in which coach Gene Hackman measured the rim at 10 feet, explained the game was no different to small schools as it was to big schools and then passed a giant bottle of Captain Morgan around to all his players.
Or something like that. It's been a long time since we watched "Hoosiers." We're not worried about this, however, as we're certain every strained, imaginable parallel between that 1986 film and the current Bulldogs will be milked before Saturday's semifinal tipoff.
And good! Because are you going to root for, really? West Virginia? Hmm: nice win against Kentucky, and they haven't been to a Final Four since 1959. We can't pull for them until Bob Huggins upgrades that wardrobe of his. Against Kentucky, he looked like he was wandering to a five-dollar blackjack table.
Michigan State? A clutch victory against Tennessee on Saturday, but you can't be serious. Not only have they won multiple national titles, this is the sixth time they've made the Final Four since 1999, including last year. Hoping the Spartans will make the Final Four is like hoping Dan Brown will crack the bestseller list. Even Michigan State hero Magic Johnson looks kind of jaded by the success. We'd have preferred to see Tennessee reach the Final Four, not only because they've never made it, because we think Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl is amusingly loony—he's the Rex Ryan of college basketball.
But Duke? Nothing against blue people, but we didn't root for "Avatar" at the Oscars, and we're not rooting for Duke in a Final Four.
Here's how we'd like next weekend to go. In Saturday's semifinal, Butler finds a way past Michigan State -- sweet home-state revenge for the Spartans beating Indiana hero and No. 1 seed Indiana State in 1979. In Monday's final, Butler's the underdog regardless of who they play: Duke, West Virginia or the New Jersey Nets. Okay, maybe not the Nets. The game is a close one, a real Greg Gumbel nailbiter. With five minutes to go, Gene Hackman has snuck his way into the Butler huddle alongside Mr. Stevens, and of course it comes down to free throws, which the Bulldogs swish, because Mr. Hackman's been nagging them about it for months.
And then CBS cuts to "One Shining Moment" and, poof, the power goes out for four minutes.
It'd be another Final Four classic. Let's summon our collective fan energy, and make it so, Bulldogs.