Heading into the 2010 NCAA Tournament, most viewed Butler as a darling little story, a mid-major program that had gained some national shine for its 28-4 record.
Real talk, though: The Big Dance is for the Big Dogs.
In the Millennium, no team from outside the Power 5, the BIG EAST, or Conference USA (a solid basketball conference in the early 2000s featuring the likes of Marquette, Louisville, and Memphis) had made the Final Four with the exception of George Mason's memorable run to the 2006 national semifinals.
Though Butler began the 2009-2010 season ranked #11, head coach Brad Stevens' squad fumbled its early-season chances against big-time competition, losing contests to top 25 teams Minnesota, Clemson, and Georgetown. While the Bulldogs' 18-0 Horizon League regular season and conference tournament title were enough to bump them back into the top 25, hefty skepticism remained that Butler could make any type of significant March Madness run.
Despite entering the NCAA Tournament with a 20-game winning streak, the Bulldogs were 80-1 to win the title, odds in line with 24-8 Vanderbilt and 24-8 Xavier.
Beating up on downtrodden Horizon League foes like Illinois-Chicago and Youngstown State was nice, yes, but the NCAA Tournament was a different beast. Let Butler, a private school of 4,200 students, enjoy its moment, but March Madness would soon enough discard the Horizon League champs and see its traditional A-listers take the stage.
Many prognosticators had Butler, a #5 seed always among the sexiest of upset targets, falling to 26-6 UTEP in the first round. And it wasn’t a far-fetched idea given head coach Tony Barbee’s veteran squad featured three future NBA players, including Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter and Arnette Moultrie.
But then Gordon Hayward & Co. began writing their own tale.
First, Butler trounced UTEP 77-59, using a 24-4 second half run and a career-high seven three-pointers from Shelvin Mack to erase a six-point halftime deficit.
Then, Butler survived a scare from upset-minded Isaiah Canaan and 13th-seeded Murray State. A three-point play from Ronald Nored with 25 second left enabled the Bulldogs to hold off the Racers.
Survive and advance
Butler’s run into the Tournament’s second weekend seemed a fascinating epilogue to the Bulldogs’ successful campaign – a nice cap to a fine season. Even those who had the Bulldogs advancing into the Sweet Sixteen, then-President Obama included, saw Butler falling to Syracuse. After all, the Orange sported a 30-4 record and had not lost outside the Big East all season.
Only Butler didn’t stumble. In fact, the Bulldogs took it to the top-seeded Orange, racing out to a 10-point halftime lead and holding on for a 63-59 win.
“There are no mid-majors in this tournament. Just a bunch of guys playing basketball with lots of passion,” Stevens said.
In the Elite Eight, Butler overcame Kansas State 63-56 to capture the first Final Four appearance in school history. Best of all, they were heading home to play at Lucas Oil Stadium, less than 6 miles from their Indianapolis campus.
“I don’t think there’s pressure on us to win. Other than our fans and community, very few people expected us to be here,” Butler forward Matt Howard said.
Surely, the Bulldogs’ fairy tale would end against mighty Michigan State, right? Korie Lucious, Durrell Summers, and Draymond Green would smack the Bulldogs and run into the Monday night championship game, right?
Nope. In an intense, physical battle, Butler outlasted Michigan State 52-50 despite going scoreless for more than 10 minutes in the second half.
Butler continued penning its own fairy tale.
“We know we can win the whole thing,” Nored said.
In the title game, Butler went toe-to-toe against the big, bad Blue Devils from Duke. No team held more than six-point advantage and the game was a one-possession affair inside the final minute.
With 3.6 seconds remaining, Duke center Brian Zoubek knocked down the first of two free throws to put Duke ahead 61-59. Zoubek’s second shot, however, caromed off the back iron. Hayward corralled the rock. He pushed it up the right side. At midcourt, the Indiana-bred Hayward heaved a running one-legged shot and …
The clock struck midnight.