By Jim Litke/The Associated Press
They don’t mind the comparisons to “Hoosiers” so long as you don’t get carried away. The Butler Bulldogs understand why people just catching up to their story might find the parallels irresistible.
Small school, big underdog, a lineup packed with savvy kids from Indiana who treat each possession as if was their last. The school gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse, is where the real-life version of “Hoosiers” played out in the state high school tournament in 1954. It’s the same place where the climactic scene in the movie version was filmed 32 years later.
“I definitely can remember the last time I watched ‘Hoosiers,’” guard Ronald Nored said.
That was last July in the movie room at coach Brad Stevens’ Butler basketball camp, where Nored worked as a counselor. He recalled how every day, for four weeks straight, the campers insisted on watching the movie over and over.
“It’s the most annoying thing,” Nored said finally, “I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
But it’s not the repetition that rankles Nored and his teammates; it’s the reputation of overwhelming underdog attached to it.
Having earned a spot in the Final Four by virtue of punching out No. 1 seed Syracuse and No. 2 Kansas State, the Bulldogs are dying to be taken seriously. They see themselves as anything but longshots to win the wackiest NCAA tournament in years, especially since it’s being played in Indianapolis, little more than a 10-minute ride from campus.
“Someone’s got to go to the national championship and win,” said Gordon Hayward, Butler’s star and it’s only likely NBA prospect. “So why couldn’t it be us?”
Still, feel free to invest as much romance in the tale as you want. Unlike his players, Stevens, a baby-faced, 33-year-old who looks young enough to be a camper instead of the guy in charge, believes he can still get some mileage out of the underdog role.
“Why wouldn’t you want to be that?” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want to be an overachiever?”
Well, for one thing, overachieving is a relative term. Butler might be a mid-major — it has only 4,500 students and plays in the Horizon League — but winning basketball games against the big guys is something they’ve been doing consistently for the past decade.
The Bulldogs face Michigan State in their first Final Four, but they made the Sweet 16 twice since 2003. Stevens has won more games (89) than any major college coach at his age, that after serving as an assistant to coaches Thad Matta — now at Ohio State — and Todd Lickliter, who was recently fired at Iowa.
“For a guy his age to do what he’s doing, as hard as it is to win, with such a young team, that’s big-time stuff,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said.
Stevens knows which buttons to push, and when, because he’s an Indiana kid himself. He got his start in the game shooting baskets in the driveway and then played his college ball at nearby DePauw. He was carving out a career in the marketing department of Indianapolis pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly when he swapped that job for life as a volunteer assistant.
Stevens hasn’t regretted that decision for even one day since, reminding his players that despite a smaller budget, less TV time and virtually no hype, they can play with anybody when they play as a team.
It’s like that emblematic scene from “Hoosiers,” where the fictional coach from Hickory High — played by actor Gene Hackman — measures the height of rim in practice just ahead of the championship game. The point is to demystify the game, to make sure his charges remember it’s 10 feet, just like everywhere else they’ve played.
“That’s how we look at it. If people want to think that about our team,” Stevens said about being tagged a mid-major program, “then that’s OK.
“I think we respect every opponent we play, and we hope we’ve earned the respect of the opponent that we play, so they feel when they walk in the gym, they’re going to have to beat us. We’re not going to beat ourselves. We’re going to do tough things,” he added. “We’re going to give for one another.”
Stevens doesn’t know how the script will turn out, but he’s already got one scene in mind. It begins on the bus ride back from the win over Murray State at 2:30 a.m, just as the Bulldogs rolled past Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of this weekend’s Final Four.
“That was the first time I even thought about it,” he said. “I don’t remember what I said to my wife, so yeah, write whatever you want.
“Whatever,” Stevens said finally, laughing, “sounds best.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org