Butler Meets World ... and Those Closer to Home
Butler is the last remaining true underdog in the NCAA tournament. During their careers, the Bulldogs have been able to move around Indianapolis, where the campus is located, without too much fanfare.
"When we walk into the mall, nobody notices,'' said guard Shelvin Mack, the team's second-leading scorer with a 14.1 average. "When you go down the street, nobody notices.''
But that could soon change. If the fifth-seeded Bulldogs can beat No. 2 Kansas State in Saturday's West Regional final at EnergySolutions Arena, they will play in their home city in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, seven miles from campus.
"You can definitely say that, March Madness being so high-profile,'' Butler guard Willie Veasley said of whether a win would make it a night-and-day difference from when the Bulldogs left Indianapolis earlier this week to when they return Sunday.
It's wouldn't be just in Indianapolis. Butler players suddenly would gain recognition from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.
Sports fans love underdogs. Yes, the Bulldogs (31-4) have rankings of No. 8 and No. 11 in the two polls and own a 23-game winning streak. But no team from the Horizon League can make the Final Four and not be considered an underdog.
"Yeah, they might,'' Butler guard Ronald Nored said of fans throughout the nation getting behind the Bulldogs if they make the Final Four. "When George Mason made their run [to the Final Four in 2006], people liked to note, 'Who's George Mason?' I never heard of George Mason before they made that run. People wanted to see them win.
"People that maybe have never heard of us, they want to see us win. We're not really trying to live up to those expectations because I think we've had expectations on us all year. It's about going out and doing our job. If we do, that's going to be awesome that a lot of people are enjoying watching us.''
To compare George Mason -- which never had done much of anything in college basketball until stunningly advancing to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed -- to Butler isn't fully accurate. The Bulldogs have made the Sweet 16 three times since 2003, although this is their first visit to the Elite Eight.
Still, just as it did with George Mason in 2006, the "mid-major'' designation has come up with Butler. Naturally, Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens was asked about it Friday.
"I think it boils down to revenue,'' Stevens said. "I think that's where the term comes from. Maybe it didn't start that way. Maybe it started with conference affiliation. But the bottom line is it's about revenue, which has no impact on a five-on-five basketball game.''
Butler, which has an enrollment of 4,200 and couldn't sell out any games this season at 10,000-seat Hinkle Fieldhouse, doesn't do too great in the revenue department. The Bulldogs face ample competition from pro teams in Indianapolis and Indiana and Purdue dominate the state's college basketball landscape.
"It's a state ruled by IU and Purdue,'' said center Matt Howard. "It's always been that way. We're trying to get a little slice of that. They're the big schools, and we're a smaller school by conference supposedly and also by size. ... And you're not on national television all the time.''
But that hasn't stopped the Bulldogs from having lofty thoughts. In fact, forward Gordon Hayward, who leads the Bulldogs with a 15.3 scoring average, is their only NBA prospect. He is quoted in the school's media guide as saying his advice for young kids is to dream big.
"I think we kind of embrace that,'' Hayward said. "Someone's got to go to the national championship and win, so why couldn't it be us? We set that goal at the beginning of the season.''
The Bulldogs had previously not talked much about possibly becoming the first school to play in the Final Four in its home city since UCLA in Los Angeles in 1972. One reason was Stevens not wanting them to look past the next game.
But guess what? A win in the next game gets them to the Final Four.
"I think we can talk about it now because it's the next game, and this whole season it's been the next game,'' Hayward said. "With the next game, you do have a chance to play at home. It would be really special if we get this win and go back and play in front of our home crowd.''
Hayward has been told by friends how much excitement there was back home after the Bulldogs on Thursday shocked top-seeded Syracuse, 63-59, to get one step shy of the Final Four.
"I just heard it was crazy on campus, with some rioting going on,'' said Hayward, who later clarified "rioting'' in the north part of Indianapolis is "a little more low key'' than if that word was used elsewhere. "Everybody was just really excited. It's a great time to be a Butler Bulldog.''
It really would be a great time to be one if the Bulldogs can win Saturday. They might even get recognized at the mall.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson