By Eddie Pells Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Yes, it’s a matchup pitting a cute bulldog against a devil, America’s favorite underdog against the team people love to hate.
Dig a little deeper, though, and basketball fans might see two programs, the Butler Bulldogs and Duke Blue Devils, who come from almost the same place.
The teams playing for the national championship tonight hail from small, private schools that don’t simply open their doors to anyone. They’re located in different parts of America, but both deep in the heart of basketball country — Indiana and North Carolina.
As is the case at Duke, Butler graduates about 90 percent of its players. As is the case at Duke, there’s more than mere lip service paid to the classroom at Butler — no need to roll your eyes when the overused term “student-athlete” gets busted out this time of year by the NCAA.
“They’re all looking for special players and kids,” Butler athletic director Barry Collier said. “The fit at Butler, there are players on our team that could play at lots of schools. We have tried to recruit students that were (true) student-athletes, basketball players who were very good students.”
Butler’s coach, Brad Stevens, is 33 — the same age Mike Krzyzewski was when he took over at Duke 30 years ago, back when both he and his school were something less than what they’ve become.
Stevens followed the formula set up by his predecessors, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter: Recruit team-oriented players with a sense of tradition who, maybe most importantly, want to get a degree.
“We always say that whatever happens on the basketball court, we don’t want it to be the highlight of your life,” Stevens said.
Sounds good, but let’s get real.
Win or lose today, Butler has made itself the center of a once-in-a-generation sports story, where the overlooked team keeps knocking off giants — Syracuse, Kansas State, Michigan State — and now finds itself on the verge of capping off a “Hoosiers” rewrite.
The Bulldogs’ home, Hinkle Fieldhouse, a mere 5.6 miles away from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, has long been as much a tourist attraction to the hoops blueblood as Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is on Tobacco Road.
The rafters at Cameron, however, are covered with names such as Battier, Hill and Laettner, while the ceilings at Hinkle are layered with a thin coat of dust, along with the memories of tiny Milan High School, the 1954 state high school champions featuring Bobby Plump, whose character became Jimmy Chitwood in the movie.
“I think we embrace it,” Butler forward Gordon Hayward said. “If that’s what the story is going to be, we’ll accept that. We’re up for the challenge. … Once the ball goes up in the air, all that’s going to disappear, and it’s just 5-on-5. We view them as another opponent, someone we’re going to play and try to beat.”
In a sign of how far Butler has come, the Bulldogs (33-4) might have the best NBA prospect on the floor Monday night in Hayward, a 6-foot-9 forward, who can shoot the 3, guard on the perimeter and play in the middle if he has to.
The dynasty Krzyzewski has built at Duke, with undergraduate enrollment of 6,340 — only about 2,000 more than at Butler — shows anything is possible.
“Everybody wants to be like them,” Stevens said. “I don’t think there’s any question. Speaking for Butler, we have a tremendous program, but we’re not near what Duke has accomplished over the last 30-plus years. They’ve set a standard.”