April 3, 2010

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By Anthony Oliva III

INDIANAPOLIS - In November, Butler guard Ronald Nored walked into Lucas Oil Stadium without any fanfare. He was just one of the thousands of paying patrons there to see a country concert, indistinguishable from anyone else.

About five months and a storybook run later, Nored will be taking center stage in that very same stadium while upwards of 70,000 eager fans pay to watch his and his teammates' every move.

Butler, which shocked many by reaching the Final Four as a No. 5 seed, will face another No. 5 seed, Michigan State, at 6:07 ET on Saturday night for a right to play in the national championship game.

The buzz surrounding Butler playing in the Final Four in its home city of Indianapolis has been overwhelming. And, Nored prophetically began to visualize this on that November night.

"I remember sending somebody a text saying, `If we play here, this will be special,'" Nored recalled.

The text was sent to roommate and teammate Gordon Hayward.

"I remember getting a text from him, and we envisioned it and thought about it since then," Hayward said of making the Final Four. "It did seem like it was a ways away just because of the time, but other than that we all knew we could get here."

Despite playing in a conference that hadn't produced a Final Four team until this year, the Bulldogs, which returned an abundance of talent, never thought that the dreams they're realizing now were out of reach.

"We decided the first day of practice that we wanted to win a national championship," Nored said. "From then on it was about improving every day, and we thought if we improved every day that we could be here."

Butler started the season ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP Poll, but found itself unranked after it lost to UAB, its fourth loss of the year, on Dec. 22.

The Bulldogs haven't lost since.

With Butler, a small school from Indiana, making an improbable run like this, the comparisons to the movie Hoosiers are inevitable. While the connection, at times, can be overstated, Nored did find some similarities.

"Those guys in the movie, they played together," the sophomore said. "They had some tough times at the beginning of the season, and they overcame them. They were tougher because of them. I think we're tougher because of some of the losses we took earlier. We rallied around each other and stuck together, just like you saw in the movie."

In the last two rounds, Butler defeated two of the more hyped team in the nation this year, No. 1 seed Syracuse and No. 2 seed Kansas State.

"We've won 24 straight and it's not like we've played a bunch of bad teams," center Andrew Smith said. "Right now we're on top of the world and we feel we can play with anybody."

While Butler carries around the Cinderella label, Michigan State isn't buying into it.

"We don't look at them as an underdog or a Cinderella team or anything like that," Michigan State guard Korie Lucious said. "We just look at them as another great team we have to play and get ready for."

The Bulldogs are a feisty defensive team, yielding less than 60 points per game on the year. Hayward is a star, averaging 15.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, and guard Shelvin Mack is an accomplished second option, scoring over 14 points a game.

Against Michigan State, Butler will surrender some size. The Spartans have an imposing frontline, and 6-foot-8 forward Matt Howard, the team's best interior defender, is going to have to be up to the challenge.

Now that they have defied the odds - in the public's mind at least - and made it this far, the Bulldogs are not satisfied.

"We're here to win the national championship," Nored said. "Were not here, as great as it is, to make ourselves look good to the media and get our name out there. We're here to win a national championship. We've done a job all year and we want to finish it."

If Butler is able to keep winning, the pandemonium enveloping Indianapolis could only escalate. Approximately 30,000 people showed up for Butler's open practice on Friday. Like celebrities, the players are signing autographs and taking pictures on campus and even during class. Hayward, a tennis fan, received a call from tennis superstar Andy Roddick. Smith, a reserve, had a fan wander into his room at 1 a.m. seeking an autograph. Shelvin Mack, not to be outdone, is making countless new friends - on Facebook.

The stories of fanatical support for this beloved Butler team go on and on.

Is it as special as Nored thought it could be when visualizing it five months ago?

"It's more special," Nored said. "Way more special."