Gordon Hayward scored 19 points to Saturday to lift Butler into the national title game. (John W. McDonough/SI)
INDIANAPOLIS -- If this is really going to happen, if Butler is going to win the first small-school, small-conference national title of college basketball's modern era, it might as well go through Duke: The blue-blood with six McDonald's All-Americans to the Bulldogs' none; with a hoops budget of $13,873,859 last year -- the nation's highest -- to Butler's $1,729,754; with a famed-coach-turned-corporate-icon against a baby-faced coach who got his start by bailing on the corporate world to volunteer at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
And the Blue Devils are not just richer and more famous: They're playing significantly better than Butler, having advanced to Monday's championship game with their most stunning offensive performance of the season, scoring 1.434 points per possession in a 21-point rout of West Virginia. The Bulldogs clawed their way through, holding Michigan State to 0.855 PPP while scoring just 0.889 PPP in a two-point victory. Duke is statistically stronger on offense and defense, a seven-point favorite in Vegas -- a powerhouse, as center Brian Zoubek said on Saturday, that's "playing our best basketball at the end of the season."
That leaves us to ponder how this -- this national title that's now just one win away from Butler -- can really happen. It's what most of America wants, to see these Hoosier heroes from the 4,500-student campus on Indy's North side knock off the malevolent, East Coast Goliath. But that's not enough to make it so. The Bulldogs certainly aim to put on another team-defense clinic, as they've done against Syracuse, Kansas State and the Spartans in this NCAA tournament, and challenge all the three-pointers that Duke was allowed to shoot freely on Saturday. But the same defense they played in the past three rounds won't be enough, either. The upset only happens if they make more Butler Plays than ever before.
The first Butler Play I saw, this postseason, had no real bearing on the game. It was during the Horizon League final on March 9, when the Bulldogs were up 24 points on Wright State with 9:38 left in the second half. Junior forward Matt Howard did something completely unnecessary, yet awe-inspiring: He kept a possession alive by tipping an offensive rebound, and chasing it from the right block all the way past the left wing. He dove into the front row of seats to save it, clearing out two chairs, and generating a made three-pointer by Willie Veasley that put Butler up 27.
Afterwards, Butler coach Brad Stevens spoke of Howard's effort with the kind of reverence typically reserved for a Mario Chalmers-level buzzer beater: "That's a play that will be shown here for the next 20 years," Stevens said. "It speaks to who [Howard] is, but it also speaks to who we all want to be every day."
As the stage grew bigger, at the NCAA tournament, Butler Plays were made in more critical moments. In a two-point, second-round win over Murray State, Gordon Hayward's diving deflection -- an uncharacteristic floor-burn highlight from the Bulldogs' offensive star -- ruined the Racers' final offensive possession. In the last minute of Butler's upset of top-seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Veasley, despite being just 6-foot-3, skied over the Orange's front line for an improbable tip-in that made it a six-point game. Late in the first half against Kansas State in the Elite Eight, Shelvin Mack, the least-defensive-minded member of the Bulldogs' backcourt, stepped over to strip Jacob Pullen as he came off a screen, then took the ball upcourt to hit a jumper that opened up an 11-point lead. On Saturday against Michigan State, 6-1 backup guard Shawn Vanzant, playing in crunch-time due to Mack being sidelined with muscle spasms, grabbed a monster offensive rebound with 1:41 left, and, as he was falling out of bounds, found Hayward for a layup that put the Bulldogs up four. It would be the last field goal of the game by either team.
And this is what Hayward said about Vanzant's unlikely rebound and assist: "Coach [Stevens] is going to be replaying that one forever."
It will go on the same hallowed highlight tape as Howard's save, Hayward's dive, Veasley's tip, Mack's strip. Each time, a different player; each time, an effort above and beyond what was expected. As much as the media is hammering home Hoosiers comparisons in Indy, the Bulldogs don't need inspiration from a movie released before a single one of them was born. They've inspired each other with their own reel of Butler Plays.
Need more evidence that Butler does it its own way? The defining, Hinkle Fieldhouse moment of Hoosiers is Jimmy Chitwood's last shot -- but in the final minute of Saturday's game, the Bulldogs were actually excited to not be on offense. "A lot of people want to shoot the last shot," said sophomore Ronald Nored, the defensive specialist who has brilliantly guarded Andy Rautins, Jacob Pullen and Durrell Summers in the past three games. "We want to guard the last shot."
In the huddle during the game's penultimate timeout, with Butler holding a one-point lead with 23 seconds left, and Michigan State in possession of the ball, the Bulldogs said to each other, "This is Butler basketball." And this is what happened next: Michigan State's Draymond Green, a barrel-chested point-forward who appears to have a 45-pound heft advantage on Hayward, backed him down in the lane, and tried to muscle in a game-winner. Howard was out of the game with what was reported by CBS as a "slight concussion," and so Hayward was on a defensive island near the rim. The slender, 6-9 kid from Brownsburg, Ind., held his ground, got a hand near the ball -- "I don't know if I got a piece of the ball or maybe a piece of his arm," he said -- and Green's shot never even hit rim. Hayward had followed Vanzant's Butler Play with one of his own.
Nored, a 62.3 percent free-throw shooter who was just 3-of-12 from the line in the tournament coming into Saturday, grabbed the loose ball, and was promptly fouled. He stepped to the line, calmly, and made both shots. No one expected him to do that, just as no one expected him to nail a late three in the Syracuse game, due to the fact that he's an 18.2 percent long-range shooter on the season. But Nored's confidence during this tournament has never wavered, and his teammates believe in him to make big shots late in games.
He's the leader who delivers their final, pregame words of wisdom; before the K-State game the message was about breaking through brick walls, and they did that, crashing Lucas Oil Stadium for the Final Four. Prior to the Michigan State game he reminded the team of the speech they'd received on Friday from Matt White, a 1989 Butler grad who's stricken with ALS -- a fatal muscular disease -- and is restricted to a wheelchair, unable to move or speak. White told them, through a message read by his wife, "I try to live like you play. You are my inspiration."
White said he'd come to Indianapolis, from Florida, to see them win a national championship.
Nored told his teammates, before they took the floor, "I want us to give [White] a reason to know that it's great to live for two more days, at least." The Bulldogs went out and played inspired -- and inspiring -- basketball. They made Butler Plays. They'll need to make many more against Duke for this fairy tale to have its proper ending. And then they'll have a tape that everyone wants to replay, forever.