INDIANAPOLIS — Butler’s Ronald Nored stayed right on message early Sunday morning.
He doesn’t want any more talk about how a small-school team won over college basketball fans with another improbable Final Four run. Nope. This time it’s win or bust in Houston.
“This year we’re going to get the real call from President Obama and not the runner-up call,” Nored told hundreds of Butler fans after beating Florida to advance to their second consecutive Final Four.
Admittedly, the Alabama native was playing to the crowd. Still, the sentiment stands.
Yes, Nored appreciated last year’s conciliatory message from President Obama, reveled in playing the role of America’s tournament darlings and loved being on college basketball’s biggest stage. But he and the Bulldogs came home empty-handed, their run ending inches short of upsetting Duke in the national title game.
That’s not good enough for them — then or now.
“I think it’s about believing, and we want them to believe,” Stevens said. “You know people say ‘This is unbelievable.’ But when you know these guys, it’s not unbelievable. It’s believable.”
The Bulldogs are turning skeptics into believers with each succeeding win.
After Gordon Hayward left early for the NBA, most analysts didn’t think Butler could get back. They also pointed to four Butler losses in five games in the middle of the Horizon League schedule as proof that there would be no sequel.
They were wrong.
Butler closed the season on a seven-game winning streak to clinch a share of a fifth consecutive regular-season title. The Bulldogs then won two more games in the conference tourney to clinch the conference’s automatic bid, ending any debate.
At the tournament, Butler beat Old Dominion with a second-round buzzer-beater and top-seeded Pittsburgh in a wacky foul-filled finish to reach the regionals for the third time in five years. They survived a late charge from Wisconsin to become the only 2010 Final Four team to make the regional finals and rallied Saturday from an 11-point deficit in the final 9½ minutes to beat second-see ded Florida 74-71 in overtime.
It’s the first time an Indiana school has reached back-to-back Final Fours, and Butler, like the Milan Miracle team that served as the catalyst for the movie “Hoosiers,” now has a second chance to finish the mission.
“It shows how far we’ve come,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “If you had told me on that day, that we lost to Youngstown State, that we would be here, I never would have thought this was possible.”
Stevens always believed.
Even during the worst skid of Howard’s career, Stevens saw the look in his player’s eyes, their dedication on the court and how much they were hurting. So rather than harping on everything that went wrong, Stevens focused on rebuilding their confidence and the belief that they could get back to the Final Four.
“Well, we’ve done it,” Stevens said Sunday morning.
Of course, things will be different in Houston.
Unlike last year, Butler won’t be playing six miles down the road and juggling classes with practices.
Locale isn’t the only change.
When the Bulldogs returned to campus early Sunday morning, they were more businesslike than celebratory. Coaches and school officials used the lessons of last year’s success to get a jump on planning for this week’s montage of ticket and media requests, and players acknowledged they weren’t to celebrate anything yet.
“I think it (last year) helps you with knowing how you need to prepare and what you should do and what you should not do ,” Howard said. “I think that will help us.”
The biggest part of the equation, Stevens insists, is believing they can win it.