Bob Lutz: Butler cements itself as tourney's feel- good story

03/28/2010 12:00 AM

03/28/2010 12:23 AM

SALT LAKE CITY — You don't grow up in Indiana without being indoctrinated to basketball. The state's motto, "The Crossroads of America," should be heretofore changed to "The Crossover Dribble of America."

Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens, who looks 10, was actually 10 when the movie "Hoosiers" was released in 1986. He has no idea how many times he's seen it over the years.

"I've gotten so many texts here and you always get 'Hoosiers' quotes,'' Stevens said. "One of them from a good friend the other day just said, 'One more, Ollie.' Not a week goes by when somebody who hasn't seen (Hinkle) Fieldhouse doesn't walk in and at least mouth the word 'Hickory.' "

Butler is headed for the Final Four after beating Kansas State on Saturday, a Final Four to be played not in Hinkle but at Lucas Oil Stadium. You could fit five or six Hinkle Fieldhouses into the place, which means you can fit 60,000-or-so Butler fans into the place.

It's too good to be true and even Frank Martin, Kansas State's coach, can appreciate the story of Butler playing in its first Final Four in its front yard.

"It's big-time,'' Martin said. "I'm real happy for them. It's hard to be happy for someone when you lose to them. But I got to think it's going to be a great, great week for Butler people and the city of Indianapolis to have one of their own in the Final Four.''

Stories like Butler basketball are what's best about college sports and why the NCAA Tournament is such a great event. Anybody who lays a hand on the way this tournament is operated should have to spend 40 minutes locked in a room with Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Gus Johnson.

We don't need a 96-team field to clog up this tournament with mediocrity. We don't need to worry about saving the jobs of more coaches or putting more money into the pockets of the TV moguls who run ESPN or CBS.

We need to protect the sanctity of a 65-team field that can produce a story like Butler.

Most people who visit Indianapolis would need a map to locate Butler's tiny campus. The university's enrollment is roughly 4,500 and the school's Web site promotes Butler's goal of teaching clear and effective communication, appreciation of beauty and a commitment to lifelong learning, community service and global awareness.

It's where the smart kids go: The average GPA for Butler's freshman class is 3.74 and many Butler students were valedictorians of their high school classes. Going to school there costs about $36,000 per year.

It makes sense, then, that Butler's basketball team is full of bright guys who seem to be aware of the globe and appreciate beauty. And they also shoot, pass, dribble and defend really well.

Butler is taken for granted by the Indianapolis basketball faithful who pour their hearts and souls into whatever is going on at Indiana University, even when the Hoosiers are suffering.

Now, though, the Bulldogs have made themselves impossible to ignore. By winning the Final Four, they could do the unthinkable and eclipse the drama on which the movie "Hoosiers" is loosely based — tiny Milan High's run to the Indiana state basketball championship in 1954.

Stevens said he never thought about the Final Four until after Butler's second-round NCAA Tournament win over Murray State last weekend. While on the bus back to campus, the team drove by Lucas Oil Stadium, seven miles from Hinkle Fieldhouse.

"That hit a little bit,'' Stevens said. "That's the first time I even thought about it.''

Butler's players are trying to take everything that has happened to them the past two weeks in stride. The Bulldogs are veterans of the NCAA Tournament, but had never advanced past the Sweet 16.

"It's just very special for all of us here,'' said sophomore forward Gordon Hayward, who had 22 points and nine rebounds against K-State.

Hayward and teammates Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack were, not surprising, asked how many times they've seen the movie that captures the passion of Indiana basketball. Hayward went first, saying that he saw "Hoosiers" countless times while growing up in the small Indy suburb of Brownsburg.

"It seems like it's always on TV back home,'' he said. "So whenever it's on, I watch. I love watching.''

Sophomore teammate Ronald Norad said "Hoosiers" is shown every day for four weeks at Butler's summer basketball camp.

"Do the math, it's 16 times or something like that,'' he said. "It's the most annoying thing I've ever experienced in my life.''

Then it was Shelvin Mack's turn. He's a junior from Lexington, Ky., where hoops pride stands strong, too, despite what happened to the Wildcats on Saturday.

Mack said he had never seen "Hoosiers." Nobody believed him, so he said it again. And again. He smiled when he said it, but he continued to deny having witnessed the film.

"People get on me to watch the movie,'' he said. "But I haven't found the time to fit it into my schedule.''

Something tells me that will change this week.

About Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.

Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com

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