Mid-Major Morning Mashups: Butler Back To The Final Four Edition

North Carolina, Michigan State, Maryland, Kansas, Florida and UCLA. Only a select number of teams have reached back-to-back Final Fours since 2000 and now Butler can include itself on that prestigious list.

I'm not the first to say this, I certainly won't be the last either - but this run by the Bulldogs is more impressive than the one they put together a year ago. Brad Stevens' program was an underdog last year yes, but a powerful and dangerous one at that. The roster had loads of talent for a Horizon League team and featured a future first-round NBA draft pick leading the way. That Butler team captured our imagination as a mid-major darling, this one shattered our perception of what a program that size is capable of.

We're used to seeing the major conference powers lose a key player to graduation or the NBA, only to turn around the following season and assemble another team capable of capitalizing in the postseason. But for a school outside of the Big Six is unheard of. Memphis made back-to-back Elite Eights in recent history but did so with rosters chock full of pro talent, the same can be said of the great UNLV teams of the early 90's. Xavier has been the Elite Eight several times in the last decade, but the Musketeers never reached this point in the season and they did so out of a consistently stronger Atlantic-10.

No, the Bulldogs case is a unique one, devoid of precedence yet already saturated with perspective born of experience. An experience that would be dangerous to underrate. 

Reaction and opinion after the jump.

Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star: "knew. He knew, his players knew, the world knew: After his team had climbed out of an 11-point second-half hole, after Shelvin Mack's heroic jumper tied the game at 57, Stevens flashed a wry, knowing smile. We're Butler. We win close games. We own the final minutes. This is a fait accompli. It's done. And it was. Butler 74, Florida 71, in overtime. Unbelievable. And yet, now that Butler has established itself as a perennial national power, it's really quite believable after all. The Bulldogs, the team that captured the nation's imagination with last year's run to the title game, is heading to the Final Four in Houston and will play the winner of today's Kansas-Virginia Commonwealth game."

Luke Winn of SI.com: "In this, the most unpredictable of NCAA tournaments, the lone constant is that things - improbable, magical things - will go right for Butler and leave you speechless. Saturday's Elite Eight game against Florida did not hinge on one substitution. Games never do. The overtime win that sent the Bulldogs back to the Final Four hinged on so many elements, particularly hustle plays on the glass and defensive stops at the end of regulation and OT, but the success of one substitution was the hardest to fathom. Nine minutes and two seconds left, Bulldogs down 51-42 to Florida, their season slipping away, coach Brad Stevens walked down the bench in the direction of a freshman point guard from Indianapolis, Chrishawn Hopkins, who had played a grand total of seven minutes since Jan. 16. He played one minute in a Horizon League tournament rout of Milwaukee, and a few garbage seconds at the end of their Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin. In the 17 games that preceded this one, he was listed as a "DNP" in the box score 14 times. That stands for Did Not Play. Hopkins was so irrelevant that he warranted no mention in Florida's scouting report and had no prior warning that he might be used against the Gators. "Coach came over and looked at me, and I felt my heart beat real fast," Hopkins said. "He said, ‘Hop, go get him,' and I knew my time had come."

Andy Katz of ESPN.com: "The familiar refrain from Gordon Hayward's missed half-court shot in last year's national championship loss to Duke was this: What if Hayward's shot had gone down? Hayward would have been an iconic figure in the sport, making arguably the most dramatic basket in the history of the NCAA tournament. Over the past year the follow-up questions would have been: How much would Butler have changed the sport if a team from the Horizon League had won the national championship by beating a Hall of Fame coach and a team from basketball royalty? The shot didn't go in. Duke won. Hayward is in the NBA. But Butler still changed the sport. Ronald Nored and Matt Howard led Butler to another win and advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row. The Bulldogs paved a path to get back by developing a will that they repeated throughout this tournament. Butler is back in the Final Four after forcing their will in a 74-71 overtime win over Florida on Saturday afternoon."

Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com: "Sure, the school would win more games and make more NCAA tournaments. But it was reasonable to think Stevens would never lead Butler to another Final Four because, let's be honest, programs that spend like Butler and come from a league like the Horizon don't typically make Final Fours. That's why last year's story was so incredible, because stuff like that never happens. And yet now it's happening all over again, and this time it's even more incredible. Last year's Butler team was ranked 10th in the preseason; this year's Butler team was ranked 18th. Last year's Butler team had a lottery pick; this year's Butler team lost a lottery pick. Last year's Butler team was ranked eighth on Selection Sunday, and it received a No. 5 seed that most deemed too low; this year's Butler team was unranked on Selection Sunday, and it received a No. 8 seed that most deemed too high. Bottom line, this Final Four run was more difficult to project than that Final Four run, and that Final Four run was incredibly difficult to project."

David Jones of USA Today: "Kentucky fans, were you watching? If so, it might end up being painful. .. again. Shelvin Mack grew up in Lexington. He was a fan of the Wildcats. As a kid, he stayed up late at night to watch the games. He dreamed of playing in Rupp Arena. He dreamed of wearing the UK uniform. Instead, if Kentucky beats North Carolina Sunday, the Wildcats will move on to the Final Four in Houston. Mack's already packing. He'll be there waiting for the Big Blue Nation. With a big smile on his face. In fact, he knows a lot of the UK players well. He works out with them in the summer. On Saturday, Mack willed Butler to a 74-71 win against Florida to claim the Southeast Regional crown. It's a return trip to the Final Four for Butler. A year ago, UK fans watched one of their own fall in the final seconds to Duke in the national title game. This time, it could be even more interesting. Mack is back. So are the Bulldogs - who are quickly becoming America's Team."

Dick Weiss of the Daily News: "Like most giant killers, Butler entered Saturday's NCAA Southeast Region final here looking undersized and overmatched against SEC regular-season champion and second-seeded Florida. But the eighth-seeded Bulldogs showed us once again fairy tales can come true, stunning the mighty Gators, 74-71, in overtime at a loud, but less than full New Orleans Arena to advance to their second consecutive Final Four. Butler's outstanding junior guard Shelvin Mack, who grew up in Lexington, Ky. but was never recruited by Kentucky, his hometown school, scored 27 points and was selected the Outstanding Player in the region. Matt Howard, his 6-8 senior teammate, added 14 points and five rebounds for the team from this tiny private school of just 4,000 students located in the Indianapolis suburbs, which wrote a sequel to Cinderella when it rallied from a 51-40 deficit to force OT and then took the game over in the final moments of the extra session."

Tom Davis of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel: "Butler guard Ronald Nored knew that things weren't going well. But the junior has been around the Bulldog basketball program long enough to know that this group would find a way to persevere through the adversity. "I think that our team did a great job of just staying together through everything," Nored said. "Getting to this point isn't easy and staying together isn't easy when everything is going wrong." Nored was talking about a dismal stretch of play that sent Butler to four defeats in five games earlier this season. But he could have just as easily been referring to the Bulldogs' NCAA Tournament game Saturday against Florida in New Orleans. Butler looked finished at one point in the second half against the Gators, but the team stuck together and prevailed 74-71 in overtime. With the victory, the Bulldogs now advance to their second consecutive Final Four."

Jeff Goodman of FoxSports.com: "Brad Stevens was in the middle of the celebration at the center of the court, his Butler team having fought back from an 11-point deficit to knock off Florida and advance to a remarkable, unimaginable second consecutive Final Four. "No idea," the Bulldogs head coach said to me with a smile. "I had no idea these guys were going to be able to get there." No one did. It was just insane enough to watch this tiny school that resides mere blocks away from downtown Indianapolis come within one basket of knocking off Duke for the national championship a year ago. But to return to college basketball's grandest stage after losing an NBA lottery pick? And to do it with such high drama - a 74-71 overtime win over a talented Florida team? In the celebration afterward, there was guard Shelvin Mack, bandage over his left eye, with a wide grin and holding a pair of stuffed animals - a bulldog with a green gator stuffed in its mouth. senior big man Matt Howard was busy exchanging high-fives with Butler fans, friends and relatives in the crowd. They were ready to climb the ladders, and snip down a couple more nets. Again. America's darlings, who barely earned a spot into the NCAA tournament, are back."

Nick Fasulo of Beyond The Arc: "They did it again, and it's absolutely mind-boggling. Despite shooting 9-33 from beyond the arc, and playing one big man against three, the Butler Bulldogs pulled off yet another upset special in the NCAA Tournament, this time stunning the Florida Gators 74-71 in overtime. You hate the overused reference to Clue, but I simply cannot have enough fun with how surprisingly successful the basketball team of this small private co-educational liberal arts school has been in the last calendar year. The Bulldogs are the first non-BCS conference affiliated school since UNLV in 1990 and 1991 to reach two consecutive Final Fours, but the dichotomy between the programs couldn't be more stark. Those Runnin' Rebels were mean and vicious; boasting speed, quickness and future pros that made them look everything like a powerhouse team from any one of the Big Six conferences. Butler is not that. Instead, it is the embodiment of a overachieving group of athletes dedicated to one single goal, led by one of the brightest and boldest coaches in all of sports. They defy everything that is elite, everything that is supposed to happen, everything that the numbers tell you is probably going to happen."

 

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