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Coach, ailing fan among few who saw Butler's Final Four run coming

INDIANAPOLIS

It is not fair to say that no one saw this coming. Almost no one saw it. No one you actually know saw it. But it is not fair to say that absolutely no one saw this coming. Go back about six months to one of Butler's first basketball practices of the season. Coach Brad Stevens tells his players that if they work hard and maintain their focus, there is no reason they couldn't play for the national championship. Not much later, team manager Ryan McLaughlin is showing some new kid the proper way to videotape a scrimmage. When talk turns to the possibility of making the Final Four, McLaughlin scoffs.

"We're good," McLaughlin said, "but we're not that good."

The funny part is the videotape was still rolling. And when Stevens went back to review practice, he could hear his manager's critique. At the time, the coach had himself a good laugh.

Six months later, he's laughing still.

This is the story college basketball fans have been awaiting for decades. Once, we thought Davidson would be it. Another time, we wondered if George Mason might fit the bill. Neither made it this far.

Fifth-seeded Butler University is the most unlikely participant in the national championship game in years. How many years? The choice is yours. You could say Kansas was a No. 6 seed when it won in 1988, and the same was true of North Carolina State in 1983. You could say Villanova was the ultimate Cinderella as a No. 8 against mighty Georgetown in 1985.

You could say the only schools smaller than Butler to reach the championship game (based on current enrollments) were Jacksonville in 1970 and Holy Cross and Dartmouth in the 1940s.

You could pick any of those programs, but it's hard to recall any other school getting this far after beginning an NCAA Tournament with such little name recognition. And this has nothing to do with Butler's place in the polls or its perfect record in the Horizon Conference.

This has to do with national perception, and Butler's was virtually nonexistent.

"When I told my friends I was going to Butler, they all started asking: 'Is it Division I? Where is it? Are you sure it's not Division III?' It used to make me mad," said sophomore guard Ronald Nored of Homewood, Ala. "All this attention is good for our university.

"You know, we're pretty small. Everybody knows each other. The president of the university could probably tell you every student's name. The professors all know you. So maybe this will make people look and say, 'This might be a place I want to attend.' "

By now, you know that Butler is located in a residential neighborhood 6 miles up the road from downtown Indianapolis. You probably know its gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse, has been designated a national historic landmark. You might know that Stevens was a pharmaceutical rep before quitting to become a volunteer assistant coach at Butler 10 years ago.

And if you've watched any of these tournament games, you know Butler plays a tough, smart, aggressive style of basketball. The Bulldogs have a good crop of outside shooters, they play in-your-face defense, and they have one legit star in forward Gordon Hayward. They do not commit stupid fouls, and they all seem as easygoing as their 33-year-old coach.

Stevens has gone from being mistaken for a player by an arena security guard to being the hottest coach in the nation in just a few weeks. He has beaten teams coached by Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo and is now taking on Mike Krzyzewski.

All of this for a guy who makes a little less than $400,000 a year, which is about what Krzyzewski and Co. make in a month.

"The best way I can put it," Stevens said, "is they write books, and I get to read them."

And when he got back to his hotel room Saturday night after beating Michigan State, his wife, Tracy, was waiting to see him before taking their two children back to their Indianapolis home.

"She was just kind of staring at the wall when I walked in," Stevens said. "She kind of stared at me like, 'You guys are playing for the national championship.'

"I said, 'Yeah, but we're playing Duke.' "

Still, it's not fair to say no one saw this coming.

Go back two years to a road trip Butler made to Fort Myers to play Florida Gulf Coast. Some friends of former Butler track star Matt White had gotten hold of somebody in the basketball office and told them White's story.

He had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS) in 2000, just a month past his 33rd birthday. He had no use of his arms or legs, could no longer speak and needed help breathing. He communicated through head movements with a computer and with the help of his wife, Shartrina.

The Whites, who live in Sarasota County and operate the Web site www.cureals.org, relayed their story to the Butler team the night before the Florida Gulf Coast game.

"To see everything he had been through, and to see his wife going through it right beside him, it just showed us the power of sticking together, and believing in one another and sacrificing for each other," Butler assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry said.

When Butler beat Florida Gulf Coast that night, the players went up the stairs of the arena and presented White with a game ball. Through his wife, he told them he expected them to one day give him a game ball from the Final Four.

On Friday, Matt White was invited by Stevens to talk to the team in Indianapolis.

"He told them, 'You're my inspiration.' That was the message he wanted to get across," Shartrina said. "He always felt with Coach Stevens around that they were going to go places."

You could have seen this coming.

You just had to know where to look.

Coach, ailing fan among few who saw Butler's Final Four run coming 04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 3:40pm]
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