FOX Sports Exclusive
Butler, yes Butler, returns to big stage
Brad Stevens was in the middle of the celebration at the center of the court, his Butler team having fought back from an 11-point deficit to knock off Florida and advance to a remarkable, unimaginable second consecutive Final Four.
“No idea,” the Bulldogs head coach said to me with a smile. “I had no idea these guys were going to be able to get there.”
No one did.
It was just insane enough to watch this tiny school that resides mere blocks away from downtown Indianapolis come within one basket of knocking off Duke for the national championship a year ago.
But to return to college basketball’s grandest stage after losing an NBA lottery pick? And to do it with such high drama — a 74-71 overtime win over a talented Florida team?
In the celebration afterward, there was guard
They were ready to climb the ladders, and snip down a couple more nets. Again. America’s darlings, who barely earned a spot into the NCAA tournament, are back.
“A lot of people wrote us off,” said Butler sophomore big man Andrew Smith, who admittedly is spoiled as a participant in the Final Four in both of his college seasons thus far. “But this one makes last year’s look like it was smooth.”
That’s because this team had difficulty adjusting to the loss of Gordon Hayward, the No. 9 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, and senior starter Willie Veasley. The stingy defense was gone — and after an early season loss to Evansville, setbacks against Louisville, Duke and Xavier — people were concerned.
Then came the Horizon League slide.
Five losses — a pair to Milwaukee, one to Wright State, one at Valparaiso and then the fifth on Feb. 3 at Youngstown State.
“We came from a long way down, a long way down,” Howard said. “I can’t really even tell you how I was feeling after that Youngstown (game) about two months ago. It was really frustrating . . . I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
“There were a lot more ups and downs this year,” added Mack. “There were times you doubted yourself and doubted your teammates, but we stayed focused.”
And figured it out.
They entered this year's tourney as a No. 8 seed this time around, even more of a Cinderella than a year ago when they were actually under-valued as a No. 5 seed.
This time the road took them through four wins — including a trio of last-second thrillers that began with Howard’s buzzer-beater in Washington, D.C. against Old Dominion.
Then came the huge upset over No. 1-seeded Pittsburgh, a fairly convincing win over Wisconsin, then Saturday’s victory over the Gators, who had eliminated UCLA and BYU on their way to the Elite Eight.
“We were lucky to advance,” Stevens said. “They (Old Dominion) could be sitting here, Pittsburgh could be sitting here.”
Instead, Butler is sitting here, with another chance to win a national championship.
These guys have experience. No, not just that senior leadership that Howard brings to the table. I’m talking about legit, been-there-done-that experience.
“We don’t panic down the stretch,” Mack said. “We’ve been here before. We know what to do.”
"Whoever we play, our guys truly believe we can win,” Butler athletic director and former coach Barry Collier said after the win. “They keep amazing us.”
Florida had the game under control midway through the second half after Alex Tyus’ jumper gave the Gators a 51-40 advantage with 9:26 left in the game.
It appeared Butler’s magical run would finally come to an end. Instead, the Bulldogs wouldn’t go away.
“This team continues to amaze us with their toughness,” Butler associate head coach Matthew Graves said. “They’re such a resilient group.”
The players came into the huddle saying, “one possession at a time” and “hit singles.” Not the coaches, but the players.
“That’s when you know they get it,” Graves said.
That’s exactly what happened. Butler chipped away at the lead — and the Bulldogs got contributions from a pair of freshmen who may ensure this program doesn’t tumble into oblivion once Howard and Mack depart.
First it was Crishawn Hopkins, who hasn’t played meaningful minutes in about a month, who came off the bench, found Howard for an easy bucket and buried a critical 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 53-49. Fellow frosh Khyle Marshall had converted a three-point play that relentless Howard would have been proud of earlier in the half, and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
This is no fluke. Butler has two of the nation’s elite players in Mack and Howard — and a coach who is re-writing the college basketball history books.
Stevens is the only coach under the age of 35 to make two appearances in the Final Four. He’s put this program in elite company as the first true mid-major program since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985 to advance to consecutive Final Fours.
“It’s amazing what he’s done,” Collier said. “And he’s done it with such a poise and vision.”
A vision no one could truly imagine.
“No idea,” Stevens repeated just prior to leaving New Orleans.
More Stories From Jeff Goodman