Butler shows plenty of defensive bite

Two years ago, after then-rookie coach Brad Stevens lost basically his entire team from a 30-win squad that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, Butler was expected to vanish from the national map.

A flash in the pan, a program that would return to mid-major obscurity -- or at the very least mediocrity.

Instead, the Bulldogs have somehow captivated the attention of America and will play for the national championship on Monday night in Lucas Oil Stadium -- just 5.7 miles down the road from its campus -- after their 52-50 victory over Michigan State in the national semifinals Saturday.

Butler may not be quite the Cinderella story that George Mason was when the Patriots went to the Final Four in 2006, but no one truly expected the Bulldogs to get quite this far.

It's truly one of those unimaginable stories.

All the focus basically the entire season was about that "other" team from Indiana, the ones from about an hour or so away out in West Lafayette.

That's right, those Purdue Boilermakers, who were on their way toward rolling to a No. 1 seed.

But when Robbie Hummel went down and Stevens' group of unflappable sophomores started to churn through the Horizon League after a subpar nonconference slate, the Bulldogs' bandwagon began to pick up steam once again.

Butler was ranked in everyone's Top 25 before the season, but Stevens' team was pummeled by Georgetown in Madison Square Garden back in December and then lost against UAB a couple weeks later.

Nobody truly expected Butler's last loss to come on Dec. 22 and the Bulldogs to be one victory shy from scripting their own version of Hoosiers .

"I think they'll need to make a new movie if we win on Monday," Bulldogs senior Willie Veasley said.

The latest scene in the script was another grinder in which Butler actually went 10:32 without making a field goal late in the second half, yet still managed to come out on top.

The Bulldogs did it, in fact, with their second- and third-leading scorers on the bench for much of the game.

Starting guard Shelvin Mack missed about 10 minutes because of leg cramps and junior big man Matt Howard sat out most of the first half with foul trouble and also was ineffective in the second half after taking a shot to the head.

But Butler still knocked off Michigan State with its defense and ability to take care of ball.

There were also key moments, such as Shawn Vanzant's out-of-nowhere offensive rebound in which he tossed it while falling out of bounds to Hayward, who promptly converted a much-needed field goal to give Butler a 50-46 lead with 1:30 remaining.

Then, there were the two free throws from Ronald Nored, who came into the game having made just 3-for-12 from the line and the huge block from Hayward on Draymond Green moments earlier.

Let's face it, though.

This clearly appeared as the undercard to the Duke-West Virginia game.

Was it terrific defense or inept offense that resulted in a grand total of 102 points scored?

I'm going with a combination.

Michigan State just isn't nearly the same team without its star point guard, Kalin Lucas, on the floor.

Korie Lucious may have buried the game-winning three-pointer to beat Maryland in the second round, but he's no Lucas.

Butler point guard Nored, the third and most underrated member of the sophomore trio that also includes Hayward and Mack, was phenomenal in locking down Spartans talented wing Durrell Summers.

Summers averaged 22 points over his past three games and made 14 of 22 shots from deep, but he had to work for each one of his six field goals against the Bulldogs.

"I'll put him against anyone in the country," said Michigan State grad assistant Travis Walton, who graduated last year as one of the nation's top defenders. "He's a soldier."

Nored and his teammates have now held all five of their opponents in the NCAA tournament to fewer than 60 points, and this Butler team, Walton said, doesn't exactly have the look of a tenacious defensive unit.

"They look like a bunch of soft white boys," Walton said. "But they're legit."

Not just defensively.

This mature group, which takes its cue from a 33-year-old, even-keeled head coach, has now knocked off No. 1 seed Syracuse, No. 2 seed Kansas State and a team coached by a future Hall of Famer in Tom Izzo.

That's no cakewalk.

"For us, this isn't very surprising," Hayward said.

"This city is going to go crazy tonight," Veasley added. "But we aren't celebrating, because we want to win a championship."

And the honor to rewrite the script to a new movie.