SALT LAKE CITY - When Butler's team members departed for the NCAA Tournament, they did so with a goal that none of the other 64 teams in the field would even want to consider: They wanted to go home.
Now, after a 63-56 win over second-seeded Kansas State in the West Regional final, the Indianapolis-based school will do just that. Butler will make its first-ever Final Four appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium, just a few miles from its campus.
"This," sophomore guard Ronald Nored said, "is probably the coolest thing to happen in my whole life."
The Bulldogs (32-4, 24 straight wins), who entered the tournament as the fifth seed in the West, might be the coolest thing to happen to college basketball since George Mason reached the Final Four in 2006.
Butler had knocked off top-seeded Syracuse, 63-59, in a West Regional semifinal. In a tournament that has featured mid-major thrillers by teams such as Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's, it seemed only fitting that a mid-major has reached the big stage.
"It's OK to call us a mid-major or Cinderella," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We still get to play."
And yes, the Hoosiers connection - in reference to the classic Indiana basketball movie - comes with the territory. The team's best player, Gordon Hayward (22 points), is Jimmy Chitwood. And even Butler's home gym, Hinckle Fieldhouse, was used in the film.
But Stevens, all of 33 years old, is no Norman Dale. In fact, someone at St. John's needs to find his phone number.
"For somebody that's as young as Brad is, for him to be able to coach a team the way he coaches them, to get them to play the way they play . . . that's big time," said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, who saw his team outrebounded 41-29 by a smaller team and frequently outhustled.
The Wildcats (29-8) came off an exhausting 101-96 double-overtime win over Xavier in the regional semifinal and, for a team that averaged 89 points this tournament, looked spent.
But the players said it wasn't about fatigue as much as it was about Butler, which not only played with an amazing amount of poise on offense but was downright rabid on defense (Shawn Vanzant did a terrific job containing Denis Clemente most of the game).
"You know, everywhere I went, it seemed like Hayward was on me," said K-State forward Curtis Kelly (14 points), a 6-8 Bronx product who had only two points and four rebounds in the second half. "He was everywhere I turned."
And he was everywhere Butler needed him to be. The Wildcats, down seven at the half, finally got untracked late in the game. Clemente (18 points) nailed a three-pointer to give K-State a 52-51 lead. But Hayward hit a pair of free throws to regain the lead. Clemente hit a runner to tie it at 54 with 3:06 left, but Hayward rolled off a back screen for an alley-oop layup to put Butler back on top. Nored drove by Clemente with 2:07 left to make it 58-54.
The clincher came on a play that absolutely captured the essence of Butler basketball. Shelvin Mack hustled to a blocked shot under the basket and tossed it to Howard, who fed a cutting Hayward for a layup with 1:01 to go to make it 60-54. It was brilliant team chemistry. But to Butler, it was far more simple than that.
"I think," Hayward said, "it was just playing basketball."
And Butler still is.