Butler nearly capped the greatest Cinderella story in NCAA history a year ago. If a Gordon Hayward 3-pointer from way beyond the arc bounces in instead of off the rim, the Bulldogs are the national champions.

Instead, they lost, suffering a 61-59 setback to Duke in the championship game. To think Butler would have a chance to duplicate that kind of success this year seems almost unreal. Yet, here are the Bulldogs, in the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive year, dreaming big once again.

All coaches will tell you their team always has a chance, including the head coach of the Bulldogs, Brad Stevens.

“You always think you have a chance as a coach, sometimes futilely. But you never give up hope, and our team never did,” Stevens said. “They stayed together and got stronger and got tougher.”

That toughness has been on display throughout their tournament run. It took toughness to survive an opening-game battle against Old Dominion. Matt Howard, a rising star and one of the reasons the Bulldogs are still playing today, made a layup at the buzzer as the Bulldogs held on for a 60-58 win.

Then came a season-saving free throw against Pittsburgh, a No. 1 seed out of the Big East. Howard was fouled on a rebound and hit his first shot before intentionally missing the second free throw with 0.8 remaining on the clock to secure a 71-70 victory.

Butler has forced its fans to live on the edge of their seats, and the team’s ability to deliver in crunch time is something Stevens has been pleased with.

“I like the way we have finished in the last seconds of games,” Stevens said. “But we are going to have to guard a lot better than we have up to this point if we are going to beat Wisconsin.”

Playing the Badgers, a No. 4 seed, is never easy, but that is what Butler will do Thursday in a Southeast Regional semifinal in New Orleans. Tipoff is set for 9:55 p.m.

The good thing is the Bulldogs have been through this drill before. They understand the added pressure that comes with playing on this stage and they come here as only the third team in NCAA history to beat a No. 1 seed before the Final Four in consecutive seasons.

“The most important thing you take from our experience is that you know how to schedule your day,” Stevens said. “Once you get between the lines at game time, then it’s two teams playing and you are going to have to play well to win. You have to schedule appropriately to have success. We understand how to travel, when to do film, when to practice, all of those things.”

It helps to have players who have not only played in this setting before but have found a way to take their games to another level. Howard and Shelvin Mack have been those types of players.

Howard is averaging 16.7 points per game as the team’s leading scorer and is the Bulldogs' leading rebounded at 7.7 boards per game. He also has 36 steals and 22 blocks. Butler is averaging 72.4 ppg and allowing 64.6.

Mack, who lit up the Panthers for 30 points in the round of 32, is clicking for 15.6 points per outing. He has drilled 74 treys, dished out 124 assists and has come up with 28 steals. Five others are averaging at least five points per outing, leaving Stevens feeling pleased with the progress his team as made.

“The personnel has been the biggest improvement,” Stevens said. “I think we have gotten better technically in guarding and defending, but players like Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall have gotten better. Matt has continued to grow his game and Mack is a different player now than he was at the beginning of the season. We always look at the offseason as a time to improve. But why can’t we look at the first four months of the season as a time to improve?”

A good question, no doubt, and the answer is clearly that you can improve as the season moves forward, at least in Butler’s case.

Not only has Butler improved, but it has gained confidence during the tournament, a run that started with the team feeling it had something to prove.

“I think they went into the tourney with a little added motivation, but I also think that once they got into the tourney, the pressure was off a little bit,” Stevens said. “I think any extra motivation at this point, though, is a little unwarranted. All you need to do now is go out and play. I think our players who have been through this before are better prepared to focus on the right things and will not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment.”

Whether the season ends here or in Houston next week remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, Stevens has catapulted this program into the spotlight of big-time college basketball. Even Stevens finds it hard to believe that the program has come this far.

“You dream of it, but you don’t know how hard it is to do it until you are in the middle of it,” Stevens said. “We are blessed to have guys who have put us in a position to take advantage of opportunities. We’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of balls bounce our way, but to the credit of our guys, they have put in the work to give themselves a chance. There is a greater awareness of Butler basketball now but we haven’t changed how we approach things or strayed from our core values.”