After last season’s defeat against Duke, the Bulldogs have a new opportunity to win the first NCAA championship in school history. After assuring themselves a NCAA Tourney berth thanks to their condition as the Horizon League champ, the Bulldogs knew that there was only one way to go if they were really planning to make it into the Final Four and that was none other than “the Butler Way.” For back-to-back seasons the Butler Bulldogs have made the best from this style to rank themselves among the top four teams in college basketball worldwide.
This year they have also confirmed the strength and reliability of it by getting off their way three higher seeded rivals from major conferences. The first higher seed to be stunned by “the Butler way” was No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers in the third round; game that the Bulldogs won 71-70 thanks Mike Howard’s free throw with 0.8 seconds left. After that epic victory Butler dismissed No.4 Wisconsin Badgers in the Sweet 16, in a game where they didn’t know how to manage a 20 point lead in the second half, which came to be reduced to 7 in the 61-54 win. No. 4 Florida Gators were next in line and the Bulldogs didn’t miss the chance to prove that “the Butler way” was also effective for over time victories, even if it was in a scenario as decisive as an Elite Eight final game can be. With the buzzer the score reported 60-points each, Bulldogs and Gators, forcing the overtime to be disputed. For a few seconds many fans believed to be having a deja vu, since their 2000 NCAA Championship confrontation also ended up tied at 60 and went to OT.
But that was going to be the only similarity with that game, because this time Butler was going to avenge their loss with a 74-71 victory over Florida. Shelvin Mack had put in 22 points for Butler in the regular time to arise as the squad’s top scorer. Luckily for his teammates he added five more in overtime, which included the three point jumper that put the Bulldogs ahead of the game 72-70 with only 1:21 to go in the OT.
Having knocked out three higher seeds to make their second Final Four appearance in a row had all Butler players euphoric of their accomplishment, which made Zach Hahn questioned himself if “any other mid-major has ever done this.” The answer to Hahn’s question -who came in from the bench and contributed with two three-pointers- is that only one team from outside the six power conferences had been able to sign back-to-back Final Four appearances was the UNLV Rebels from 1990-91.
What does make them unique is that fact that the Bulldogs did so without clinching No. 1 or No. 2 seed in both occasions. Butler coach Brad Stevens only had words of appreciation for his players, as they “carried their coach in a big way,” he said. And it couldn’t be any other way around, because their work as a team turned him into the youngest coach to dispute two Final Fours. Since it was established in 2006, “the Butler way” has always denied selfishness, which is one of its fundamental reasons as of why coach Stevens doesn’t take all the credit for this accomplishment.
But this “way” goes deeper than that, as it promotes humility, passion, unity, servant-hood and thankfulness, principles without which their program wouldn’t have gained prominence. It is under these principles that the Bulldogs will try to get another shot two win their first NCAA championship ring at Houston, where they will need to earn their way into the final by getting rid of the surprising No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth Rams, winner of the Southwest bracket. The Rams have also stunned higher seed teams on their way to the Final Four, which is the case of their most recent victim, the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks, squad that they defeated 71-61. They will now go after the Bulldogs on April 2 at 6:09 ET, in a game where no matter who wins; it is already a surprise to have them both at this decisive stage.