SALT LAKE CITY — Before Butler left for its first-round NCAA tournament games in San Jose, Calif., point guard Ronald Nored stopped by coach Brad Stevens’ office and asked for something to read. Stevens lent him The Last Lecture, by late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer — the same disease that claimed Nored’s father in 2003. “Ron’s a deep thinker,” Stevens said, “and I know that when I give him a book, he’ll really get into it.”
Nored read it on the cross-country flight, and soon had a Facebook status message based on one of Pausch’s most meaningful quotes: “Brick walls are there for a reason,” Pausch said on the topic of being rejected, as a fresh college graduate, for his dream job at Walt Disney Imagineering. “The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”
Despite being just a sophomore, Nored is the Bulldogs’ de facto spokesman, delivering a message in nearly every pregame huddle. He kept Pausch’s quote on his mind, but wasn’t ready to break it out before the UTEP game, or the Murray State game, or even the Syracuse game in the Sweet 16. He saved it for Saturday, when the Bulldogs were standing behind a curtain just off the court at EnergySolutions Arena, about seven minutes away from facing Kansas State for a trip to the Final Four. The time felt right.
Twelve days ago, these Butler Bulldogs stepped outside the brick walls of Hinkle Fieldhouse, their 82-year-old jewel of a gym in which Hoosiers was filmed, to hit the road for the NCAA tournament. Then they were just a fifth-seeded mid-major with a 28-4 record, and a popular pick to be upset by UTEP in the first round. Butler’s campus being on the north side of Indianapolis, and the city’s airport being on the southwest side, it was inevitable that the team drove within sight of downtown monstrosity Lucas Oil Stadium on the way to catching its flight. On the way to catching every flight this season, in fact.
Whereas Hinkle cost $1 million to build in 1928, the home of the NFL’s Colts was completed two years ago with a price tag of $720 million, and was chosen to host the 2010 Final Four. A portion of that $720 million went to buying thousands upon thousands of reddish-brown bricks. Lucas Oil Stadium’s outer walls are made of brick.
Butler’s players said they started dreaming about the prospect of a hometown Final Four this summer — “Why not try to win the whole thing?” was what went through Matt Howard’s head — but their 33-year-old coach, Stevens, refused to do the same. “Never once mentioned the Final Four,” the steadfast one-game-at-a-time adherent said on the day before facing second-seeded K-State. “I never once mentioned Final Four.”
But he admitted, on Saturday night, that he slipped a week ago. On the way back home after the second-round win over Murray State, he caught a glimpse of the Colts’ home dominating the early-morning skyline, and said to his wife, Tracy, just how cool would it be to get there?
Next week they get to find out. When the final score in Salt Lake read Butler 63, Kansas State 56, Stevens beckoned Tracy and their 10-month-old daughter, Kinsley — whose record as a member of the Bulldog family is now 32-4 — down to the court. They made it in time to see dad do a flying back-bump with reserve forward Emerson Kampen, a celebration they honed in the privacy of the locker room after the Bulldogs’ wins over the Racers and Orange, and decided to unveil after beating the Wildcats. “Coach came up to me on the bench with about 20 seconds left,” Kampen said, “and told me, ‘If we win, we’re doing it front of everybody.’”
Shortly after the buzzer had sounded, Nored delivered his second message of the day. This one was more public, and less metaphorical. The man who stole the ball from the Wildcats on two of their final three possessions, and bulled his way through their front line for a pumping, left-handed layup to make the score 58-54 with two minutes left, stood facing the Butler fan section. With all that was left in his lungs after playing 35 minutes, Nored yelled, “WE’RE GOING BACK TO INDY!”
In response, the crowd began chanting “WE’RE GOING HOME!” They were doing that no matter what. But now they were going home to see the Bulldogs in their first-ever Final Four. By knocking off a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed back-to-back in Salt Lake, Butler busted right through Lucas Oil’s brick walls, and became the best story of this NCAA tournament.
To watch Kansas State’s Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, the stars that carried their team through a double-overtime epic against Xavier on Thursday, was to see two guards hitting a wall. Exhaustion was part of it: Pullen played 40 minutes against the Musketeers, Clemente 48 — and they were looked upon to carry the load against Butler as well. But frustration was more of it: In the Bulldogs, they ran into the most defensively savvy team in the dance, a group that may be smaller, and may be slower, but never seems to be out of position.
On Saturday, there was a twist to Butler’s rotating man-to-man that had held UTEP to 59 points, Murray State to 52, and Syracuse to 59. Nored was assigned to dog Pullen, and senior Willie Veasley — the “Shane Battier of our team,” according to Stevens — was assigned to hound Clemente, but they weren’t the only ones focusing on K-State’s guards. Stevens decided to have Butler double off of every screen, so that even when Nored or Veasley got stuck behind staggered picks, another Bulldog jumped out to help.
The results were stunning. Pullen had a nightmare first half, going 0-for-2 from the field for zero points and three turnovers. Clemente’s was just as bad: 1-for-6 for two points, the only basket coming in transition with 15 seconds left. Forward Curtis Kelly’s offense (12 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the lane) was the only thing that kept K-State in the game, down 27-20 at the break.
Veasley, who limited Syracuse All-American Wes Johnson to 17 points in the Sweet 16, said he was “shocked” to see Pullen and Clemente only go for two points combined in the first half. Seven different Butler players had at least two points after the first 20 minutes. “I don’t think [the Wildcats'] backcourt had ever felt pressure like that from one whole team,” Veasley said. “It wasn’t just me and Ron — it was the whole team guarding them.”
That defensive ethic was what permeated the Butler locker room. There were people celebrating, sure. Players wore huge grins and joked about how they’d dole out their allotment of Final Four tickets. Staff members went online to see, in amazement, that a pep rally had already been announced for 1 a.m. in Indy, and that Butler’s Web site was urging fans to stay tuned for travel updates. A team manager passed along a report, from his girlfriend, that students back on campus had hoisted school president Bobby Fong on their shoulders, and started chanting his name. But any player asked about why Butler was going to the Final Four talked seriously about D.
“It’s all five guys out there defending, helping each other,” said Howard. “We know that’s how we win games.”
Kansas State shot just 38.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. Pullen said to his teammates, just before they took the court for the second half, “C’mon! We score 80 points a game!” But pleading wasn’t enough. Pullen finished with 14, Clemente finished with 18. The Wildcats’ season ended on 56.
In the aftermath, Stevens’ father, Mark, an orthopedic surgeon in Indianapolis, stood on the court while the Bulldogs cut down the nets. He was helping babysit Brad and Tracy’s other child, Brady, who was running around in a tiny Willie Veasley jersey. Mark stayed quietly in the background, almost stunned by the scene.
“This is every father’s dream,” he said, but also revealed that Brad had confided in him, before this season, that he thought 2010-11 would actually be Butler’s year.
“He said to me,” Mark recalled, “‘We have a really good team, and I’m not sure how far we can go this year, but next year, we ought to go really far.’”
Nored, swingman Gordon Hayward (the region’s Most Outstanding Player, with 22 points vs. K-State) and combo guard Shelvin Mack (16 points, seven rebounds) would be juniors then. Trash-mustachioed forward Matt Howard would be a senior. The problem was that the Final Four was only in Indianapolis this year, so for the true fairy tale to happen, the Bulldogs needed to do it ahead of schedule.
Stevens, who became a head coach ahead of schedule — at just 30 years old, in 2007 — made that possible by getting a three-sophomore starting lineup to gel into one of the nation’s best defensive units. He’s now going to the Final Four at 33, an age when most coaches are still stuck in the assistant ranks, hoping to get a head gig perhaps four or five years in the distance.
In 2000, when a 24-year-old Stevens was considering quitting his marketing associate’s position at Eli Lilly in order to become Butler’s coordinator of basketball operations, Mark had concerns that it wasn’t a wise move. Only after a sit-down with his wife, a one-time Butler professor, did he acknowledge the opportunity his son had been presented with, and warm up to the idea.
“At first, I just didn’t think he had it in him,” Mark said of Brad, who since taking over the helm at Butler has won 88 games — more than any Division I coach in his first three seasons.
“But he continues to amaze me, more than I ever expected.”
That’s what Stevens’ Bulldogs do this season, too: They defy expectations. They win you over. And they keep breaking through brick walls.