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Butler's rise to glory rivals that of Hoosiers -- minus the 'miracle' part

INDIANAPOLIS -- The one thing that is important to get straight, right off the top: Butler is not that great a story. That's not a knock -- it's the opposite of a knock. Butler is a very good basketball team. They're not some perplexing phenomenon. Oh sure, it's fun to have a new name at the Final Four, but let's not go crazy. This is not really some crazy Hoosiers-type saga, you know, with Gene Hackman teaching kids how to dribble around chairs and Jimmy Chitwood joining the team to save the coach's job and Ollie making underhand free throws to win a game at the end.

On the other hand ...

"I just thought they were going to go in," Ronald Nored explained.

"I believe wholeheartedly in these guys," Butler coach Brad Stevens said.

"I've been practicing all week," Nored saad.

OK, so, um, yeah, it is true that Butler's Nored hit two free throws with six seconds in the game. And, it is also true that Nored is not a good free throw shooter -- he was 3-for-12 during the tournament. And it is also true that those two free throws clinched Butler's gutsy 52-50 victory over Michigan State. And yes, Butler is now going to play Duke in the national championship game -- making this the most improbable NCAA tournament run since March went Mad.

But, to get back to the point, no, Butler really is not some absurd, miracle story. The Bulldogs are good. And everyone has known all year they're good. This shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 10 in the coach's poll when the season began -- good enough that at least one of the so-called experts picked them for the Final Four before the season began.

*Though it should be noted that this prediction led to a classic moment when Stevens and his coaches were watching film of an early Butler practice, and they heard a manager say, clear as anything, "Well, somebody picked us for the Final Four. We're good, but we're not THAT good." But anyway ...

The Bulldogs were ranked No. 8 in the coach's poll when the season ended. When the tournament began, they had not lost a game since before Christmas. Nobody knows why they were underseeded fifth -- but that doesn't really matter. The point is that Butler is about as good as anybody, they are not ridiculous underdogs. In fact, they were favored by the oddsmakers to win Saturday's game against Michigan State. So let's not go around saying this story is impossible to believe.

On the other hand ...

"We might not have believed it when we said it in our first team meeting," Stevens said, "but we said, 'You know, if we focus and do our jobs, why can't we play for a national championship.'"

Well, yes, there is the somewhat impossible to believe Brad Stevens story. It is true that Brad Stevens was working in marketing at a pharmaceutical company -- Eli Lilly in 2000 -- when he got this crazy dream that he wanted to coach basketball. And it is also true that he spent the first summer of his dream doing odd-jobs at Butler, so odd the media guide simply describes his role like so: "He served in a volunteer capacity in the basketball office." That sounds like the job Kramer had on Seinfeld, you know the one where they tried to fire him and he said, "But I don't really work here."

It is also true that Stevens worked up from that vague volunteer work to the almost-as-vague coordinator of basketball operations, to assistant coach to head coach in seven years. On the day he was hired as head coach, he was 30 and a corsage short of looking like he was going to the prom.

And it is also true he won 30 games his first season, led his team back to the tournament his second, and though he looks as young as ever, his team is as well-coached as any in America. With three minutes left in Saturday's game, Butler led by three, and Stevens was matched up against Michigan State's Tom Izzo, maybe the best game coach in the country. But it was Butler that played with more poise, more confidence and, in the end, had more points when the game ended.

Still, you can't call these Butler guys miracle workers. You just can't. They're tough. They defend like crazy. They have played five NCAA Touranment games so far, and they have not yet allowed a team to score 60. On Saturday, the Bulldogs scored two field goals in the final 12 minutes, shot 30.6 percent for the game, and had just five assists as a team, but they still won because they defended like crazy and frustrated the heck out of a Michigan State team that was injured, locked in foul trouble and simply worn down.

Put it this way: When the game ended, Izzo would call it one of the most physical games his teams had ever been involved in -- which is a bit like Quentin Tarantino calling a movie one of the more violent he's filmed. And Izzo would admit that Butler was more physical than his own team.

"They get their hands on a lot of balls," Michigan State's Draymond Green would say. "When you think you've got a layup, Nored comes from behind and makes a steal ... There weren't a lot of open lanes. They played great help side defense. They have active hands."

Defense like that wins championships. This is a team of tough and talented players, so it's time to stop saying Butler is a lottery-ticket long shot for the title.

On the other hand ...

"We just believe in each other," Gordon Hayward said. He is probably the closest thing to a star on this Butler team. He's a 6-foot-9 forward-guard blend who shoots and rebounds, passes and defends. Of course, it's true that he is from a small Indiana town called Brownsburg, 133 miles north of French Lick, the famous hometown of another 6-foot-9 guard/forward blend by the name of Larry Bird.

And it's true their next-best player might be Matt Howard, who grew up in Connersville, Ind. -- 45 miles north of Milan High, where the greatest of all Indiana miracles happened. And it's true their second-leading scorer Shelvin Mack grew up in Lexington, Ky. -- in the shadow of the University of Kentucky -- and went to Butler, in part, because, "it's a small school." And it's true that none of the other Butler players were wildly recruited by bigger schools. And it is true that in the relatively long history of the McDonald's High School All-Americans, there have been two All-Americans named Butler (Jackie and Mitchell) and there was one that went to Butler High School in Alabama, but there has never been one that went to Butler University. And it is true that Butler had never gotten out of the Sweet 16 before -- and, shoot, getting to the Sweet 16 felt sort of astounding.

So, OK, yes, this really is a fabulous story. This is a team of moderately talented high school players who have come together and improved and believed. This is a team of players with ridiculous defensive will -- when someone asked Nored if he ever got worried because Butler could not put the ball in the basket in the last 10 minutes, he shrugged and said: "I knew that if we didn't score and they didn't score, we win." This is a team that outmuscled Kansas State and beat down Michigan State.

And even Izzo in the moments after his team lost -- when he was clearly disappointed in the loss, proud of his team's effort, angry about the officiating -- said, "I love this Butler story." How can you not? The Bulldogs play Duke Monday in what looks like the ultimate battle of Giant and Jack, Goliath and David, Empire and Jedi, Bad Guys and James Bond. Yes, Butler is a better team than the name suggests. So maybe it's not quite like the movie. Maybe, in some ways, it's even better.

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