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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Butler makes ‘Big Dance’ for first time in history

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There’s a favorite in Duke, a little guy in Butler, a team returning to the big-time in West Virginia and a regular hardly anyone figured would get so far this season in Michigan State.

One of the most unpredictable National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournaments in recent history served up four distinctly different stories for the Final Four.

Butler, enrollment 4,500, plays in the gym where they filmed the basketball classic “Hoosiers” and is making its first Final Four appearance. The Bulldogs play Michigan State on Saturday, which is making its sixth and perhaps most unexpected trip in the past 12 years.

The other game features West Virginia, making its first appearance since 1959, against the Duke Blue Devils, who hadn’t made it since 2004 – a long time by their standards.

“It’s not about the moments that I’ve been in, it’s the moment that your players put you in right now,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, making his 11th Final Four appearance.

The Blue Devils (33-5), 78-71 winners over Baylor on Sunday, are the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four, and as such, are the early 3-2 favorite to win it all.

Returning after a much longer time away are West Virginia and coach Bob Huggins, who made it in 1992 when he coached Cincinnati. Since then, he’s been on a coaching odyssey that has included trouble with the NCAA, a heart attack and a one-year stop at Kansas State before he returned to his alma mater in Morgantown.

Through it all, he has done a lot of winning. The latest was Saturday’s 73-66 upset over No. 1 Kentucky in the East Regional that put the Mountaineers (31-6) in the Final Four for the first time since guard Jerry West was their biggest star.

Huggins wants his team thinking about making it to Monday night’s final, and winning there, as well.

“I talked to them about trying to be special,” he said. “If we can somehow find a way to win a couple more, that will be really special.”

Although Duke-West Virginia is a typical 1 vs. 2 matchup, the Michigan State-Butler game pits two No. 5 seeds, the first time that’s ever happened.

The lopsided Final Four bracket is sure to reintroduce the long-debated idea of reseeding the teams once they reach the semifinals. But the idea of two No. 5s also reminds America of why it loves March Madness – because unexpected underdogs can make a run and have their day.

This was not considered a banner year for Michigan State (28-8), but there the Spartans were Sunday, defeating Tennessee 70-69 to win the Midwest Regional despite the loss of one of their top players, Kalin Lucas, who tore his Achilles’ tendon last week.

They still have the core of the team that made the national final last year in an inspiring run that ended close to home, in Detroit, with a blowout loss to North Carolina. Michigan State benefited from being in the most topsy-turvy region in a tournament that long will be remembered.

No. 1 seed Kansas, the odds-on favorite to win the title when the brackets came out, went out the first weekend, upset by No. 9 Northern Iowa. Tennessee took out No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 3 Georgetown was gone only a few hours into the tournament, upset by No. 14 Ohio.

The Spartans only had to beat one team seeded higher — No. 4 Maryland on a buzzer-beating 3-point shot, the kind of shot that could make a team wonder if there might be something special going on.

Speaking of destiny, Butler (32-4) will bring a 24-game winning streak to Lucas Oil Stadium, a 10-minute drive from campus.

The Bulldogs are the first team since the University of California, Los Angeles in 1972 to play a Final Four in their hometown – one of about a dozen intriguing story lines for America’s favorite little guy.

They play and practice in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the gym where scenes from the ultimate hoops underdog story was filmed. In “Hoosiers,” a small Indiana school, Hickory High, makes an inspiring run to the state title. In real life, Butler isn’t quite that kind of underdog, but the coach, Brad Stevens, said there’s no way to play for his program without getting the gist.

“Not a week goes by where somebody who hasn’t seen the fieldhouse doesn’t walk into the fieldhouse and at least mouth the word, ‘Hickory,’ ”Stevens said.

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