Butler University: An NCAA Cinderella Story

Michele Norris talks to Jim Lefko, the senior editor for sports at the Indianapolis Star, about Butler University's Cinderella appearance in the NCAA men's basketball championship game — and what it means for the school, the team and the community.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's a safe bet that few people outside of Indiana that fill out those NCAA basketball brackets had this team going to the championship game.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Rebound, Hayworth and Butler wins it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Butler is going on to the national championship game.

NORRIS: That's the winning call on WXNT News Talk 1430 A.M. out of Indianapolis. Butler University, a small liberal arts school from Indianapolis, is going to the big show.

There's something just delicious about tonight's match up. On one side, the Duke Blue Devils, a North Carolina basketball powerhouse with 15 trips to the Final Four and three national titles. On the other side, the Butler Bulldogs. The budget for their entire basketball program is less than the Duke coaches' annual salary.

It calls to mind all kinds of parables: David versus Goliath, "The Little Engine That Could," Underdog. But in the case of Butler, you better make that D-A-W-G.

Jim Lefko is the senior editor for sports at the Indianapolis Star newspaper and he joins us now. Jim, Lefko, this must be a big story out your way. How did the Butler Bulldogs do this?

Mr. JIM LEFKO (Senior Sports Editor, Indianapolis Star): Well, it's been a fun story to chronicle. As you mentioned, they are a small, little school in the state of Indiana. Indiana University and Perdue University gather most of the headlines. This year, Butler has been ranked very high most of the year, so people around the state have known that they had a powerful program.

But I think that if they were honest, they'd admit that this is a bit of a shock that theyve reached not only the Final Four but tonight's championship game.

NORRIS: Now, what really made the difference for them? Is this a strong play by a number of players or did the coaching in this case really make the difference?

Mr. LEFKO: I think it's what they call the Butler way. It might seem a little bit trite, but this team really does play like a team. If they have an NBA-quality player on the team, it's a sophomore forward named Gordon Hayward, but for the rest of them, this is as good as it's going to get. And they really have embraced the philosophies that their coach, Brad Stevens has adopted, and that's defense first.

I believe they're the only team in the history of this version of the tournament to hold every opponent under 60 points, and that's helped them when they've had trouble scoring to still play great defense, and it carried them through mostly recently Saturday night against Michigan State.

NORRIS: You're talking about the coach, Brad Stevens, but for some reason, in my mind, I keep seeing Gene Hackman. It's hard to miss the "Hoosiers" storyline here.

Mr. LEFKO: We've had a lot of fun with that, too, but I think people should remember that was high school, and that was kind of dramatized, should I say, just a bit for Hollywood. What's neat is that Butler plays its home games at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where "Hoosiers" was filmed.

But this is a little bit different. This is college basketball, Division I, and this Butler program didn't really come from nowhere. They've been highly ranked all season. They've been to the Sweet 16 three times in the past 10 or 12 years. This is a quality produced that's produced a lot of good coaches and a lot of good players.

And their unique style - they ran through the Horizon League, went undefeated in conference play, won their conference tournament and then were a five-seed in the NCAA tournament. So they really haven't come out of nowhere, unless you just, you know, don't know a whole lot about Butler basketball.

NORRIS: Now, they toppled some giants on the way to the big show: Syracuse gone, Kansas State gone, Michigan State, boom, gone. How do they now beat Duke?

Mr. LEFKO: Well, that's the million-dollar question. You know, I think if they hadn't beaten a couple of those teams, maybe the players themselves might have trouble believing that they could. But I think, like you mentioned, those are some pretty powerful programs that Butler has taken down, and they played a really tough schedule this year.

They've upped their quality of opposition so that when it came to the tournament, they wouldn't be intimidated by these kinds of power schools, and to be honest, they play with a certain amount of swagger. They've been the most physical team. I don't think anybody can match them with the defensive intensity that they've shown up to this point.

NORRIS: Now, this is a matchup between teams. It's also a matchup between coaches. And on one side, a legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Tell me a little bit more about Brad Stevens.

Mr. LEFKO: Well, he's a local player and product. He came from Zionsville, Indiana. He played basketball in the state, and he's been on the coaching staff for several years. We told his story, that he was in private business at Eli Lily, one of the big companies in Indianapolis, and just in the back of his mind always knew he wanted to be a basketball coach and kind of volunteered to help out and went through a couple levels of promotions. And being a mid-major, as Butler experienced more success, the people above him got promoted and went on to other schools and made more money, and now he has assumed the top spot for about three years and done a phenomenal job.

NORRIS: And he's a young guy. He's only 33 and actually looks much younger.

Mr. LEFKO: Right, yeah. I think a lot of times, people think he's one of the players, and I think he can still shoot pretty good. We'll have to see if he has any eligibility left.

NORRIS: Jim Lefko is the senior editor for sports at the Indianapolis Star newspaper. Thanks so much.

Mr. LEFKO: My pleasure.

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