INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Little Butler has faced one big test after another in its magical run through the NCAA tournament.
And the biggest awaits in Monday night’s title game: Duke.
“One thing about us is there’s never a sense of fear,” said Ronald Nored, Butler’s top defender. “We’re confident in everything we do.”
They’d better be. Butler (33-4) will be a 6-point underdog when it plays for its first national title — in its hometown no less — and its proud fans will be thrilled no matter what the final score is. Top-seeded Duke (34-5) is a three-time national champion, so accustomed to playing on the biggest stage that its last appearance nine years ago in the title game is considered a lifetime.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has been coaching for 35 years. Butler coach Brad Stevens has been alive for 33.
The Blue Devils are rolling, too, crushing a West Virginia team that many considered the best of the Big East 78-57 in the second semifinal. Duke was so overpowering, it could have played three-on-five — Jon Scheyer (23), Kyle Singler (21) and Nolan Smith (19) — and still won.
But there are plenty of folks who love to hate the Blue Devils, and they’ll be happy to join the Butler bandwagon.
“It’s definitely going to be a big story, I’m sure,” Smith said. “People calling Butler the Cinderella and, of course, Duke the big-time program. But it’s going to be a fight. You know, both teams are very good.”
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs already have given basketball fans in Indiana and beyond a great story. The tiny school — enrollment is just 4,200 — knocked off top-seeded Syracuse and No. 2 seed Kansas State last weekend, the only Final Four team to beat the top two seeded teams in its region.
Then it took down Michigan State, whose six Final Four appearances in the past 12 years are the best of any school in the country, with a 52-50 victory in the first semifinal Saturday night. The victory extended Butler’s winning streak to 25 games, best in the country.
“If you judge them by their size or their exterior, they can really take you by surprise,” Duke’s Jordan Davidson said. “We can’t overlook them.”
Though it is led by Gordon Hayward, the baby-faced, smooth-shooting forward who could play on any team, at any school, the Bulldogs pride themselves on winning “the Butler Way.” That’s defense, ball control, discipline and teamwork, and all of it was on display against the Spartans on Saturday night.
Butler made the offense-by-committee that had gotten Michigan State this far look more like a free-for-all and forced the Spartans into foul trouble. Durrell Summers, who averaged 20 points in Michigan State’s first four tournament games, was held to 14. Draymond Green fouled out, and Raymar Morgan, the lone senior starter, was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
Perhaps most shockingly, the Bulldogs outmuscled the bigger, bulkier Spartans, leading Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to compare them to a Big Ten team, his ultimate compliment.
Butler now has held 12 of its last 13 opponents under 60 points, including all five tournament foes.
“I think they’re an outstanding basketball team who, because Butler hasn’t been to the Final Four, creates that Cinderella thing,” Krzyzewski said. “But they’re one of the best teams in the country, or else they wouldn’t be playing in the national championship. They’ve earned it.”
But Duke and its Big Three surely will test the Bulldogs.
This isn’t the typical Blue Devils team. There’s no big name like Grant Hill or Christian Laettner. No can’t-miss NBA talent, either.
What it does have is a group of players who know their roles and play them to perfection.
Duke shot 53 percent, making West Virginia’s vaunted 1-3-1 zone look like child’s play. The Blue Devils had assists on 20 of their 29 field goals, while turning the ball over just six times.
“As a Butler coach and a Butler fan, I have no doubt I’m going to be proud of them at the end of the game,” Stevens said. “I think you take some peace with that and say, ‘Give it all you can.’ That’s what our guys are trying to do.”