By Paul M. Banks
INDIANAPOLIS- Now that Butler is back home to face Michigan State in the Final Four, a lot of people are describing the Butler Bulldogs, the first University to play in a Final Four they’re hosting since 1972, as “real life Hoosiers” or “this year’s Cinderella.”
Both are blatantly inaccurate.
These Bulldogs are much more like the 1979 Runner-up Indiana St. Sycamores, with Gordon Hayward playing the role of Larry Bird.
Coincidentally, it was Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad that eliminated Bird’s team in that title game. Saturday, we’ll see if MSU once again ousts a powerful mid-major.
It’s easy to understand why Butler is being called the real life, collegiate version of “Hoosiers.” The movie’s major scene was filmed in their gym. The real life inspiration for the iconic basketball movie, “the Milan Miracle,” occurred there in 1954. And Butler University has the smallest enrollment of any Final Four participant since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
“I can’t really tell you how many times I’ve watched that movie. I think everyone growing up in Indiana watches that movie. I’ve lost count. It’s always on TV, I feel like,” Hayward said Sunday when asked about the Gene Hackman film.
However, true underdogs, and for that matter legitimate Cinderellas, are double digit seeds who certainly DO NOT enter their national semifinal game as a 1.5 point favorites Yes, Vegas likes Butler in this battle of #5 seeds.
And a big reason why they’re favored is Hayward, a 6-9 sophomore who took home the Horizon League Player of the year award, as he helped his team go 18-0 in conference. (Again, Norman Dale lost a conference game or two, as did every real life upstart to make it this far.)
Our own David Kay describes why he thinks Hayward is a sure-fire first round pick.
“He has the range on his outside shot, can take defenders off the dribble, and finish at the rim due to his impressive athleticism. The 6-9 Hayward more than held his own against physical, athletic opponents on Syracuse and Kansas State which was a concern of mine.
I didn’t think there was any chance Hayward would be turning pro this summer but with the Bulldogs on a run and Hayward playing at a high level, it seems more and more likely. He still needs to get stronger, but there is no doubting his skill on the offensive end which pretty much ensures he will be a first round pick, possibly going as high as the mid-teens.”
David also mentioned how Hayward looks like a middle-schooler. I agree, and would like to add that when I found out Gordon Hayward was white back in November, I thought “he’s 1st-team Reggie Cleveland All-Stars easily.
But like Larry Legend, Hayward’s multiple skill sets are what makes him standout. After K-State Coach Frank Martin extolled the virtues of Hayward’s versatility, Gordon explained it’s origins:
“I was always shorter growing up. So I had to play guard. Kind of grew. My guard skills continue with me. Both my parents are 5’10”, so when you look at our family pictures, you’re kind of like, Who is that tall kid in the back and what’s he doing in that picture?” Hayward continued.
“If they need me to go in and play the four, I’ll play that, or if they need me to play the guard, I can play that as well.”
That’s why I regard Hayward and Butler itself as Bulldog, not underdog. However, one aspect to Gordon’s story has Horatio Alger properties- he was not a highly touted prospect in high school. Certainly not one thought to be who could possibly jump to “the league” after just two years.
His Coach, Brad Stevens described what he saw in Hayward.
“I saw Gordon during his junior year some when I was an assistant. He was the first kid that actually visited campus when I was named the head coach. I was blown away with him. And what really stuck out to our staff was no matter what he did in high school, it looked like it would translate right to the college level. He could pass it, shoot it, make the right decisions, he’s tough, and he rebounds. That was fairly obvious from the get go.”