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Butler Bulldogs demonstrated value of teamwork, toughness

The small school baffled pundits by making it to the NCAA Final for the second year in a row.

Usually at this time of the year I do a column on the Red Sox and their prospects. This year I will be brief. The only good thing I can say after the Sox opened at 2-7 is: "Thank God there are 162 games in the season."

The team that deserves comment is the one from Butler, a small university (with a big heart) in Indianapolis. The Bulldogs made it to the NCAA Final for the second year in a row, confounding the pundits all the way.

Last year the Bulldogs had the final shot of the game to beat Duke. It didn't fall. This year the Bulldogs held a slim lead at halftime, but their tank was on empty in the second half.

Who could blame them? Butler is a tiny school to play Division I, a mere 4,400 students. Compare this with 20,000 at the University of Connecticut, their opponent in the final.

Butler had only a mediocre season this year, going 14-9 before a late-season shake-up by Coach Brad Stevens started a win streak that led all the way to the championship game. Butler was seeded No. 8 in the Southeast Region.

The Butler tournament run started with a two-point win over Old Dominion, the ninth seed -- not an auspicious start. This brought Butler up against Pittsburgh, the Big East powerhouse and the No. 1 seed in the Southeast.

Butler struggled early as Pitt's big men dominated. Yet, as they showed again and again in this tournament, Butler refused to be intimidated.

The team found a way to come back, to stay in the game down the stretch and then to, almost miraculously, snatch victory just when it looked to be all over.

They beat Pitt by one point with clutch free throws from senior forward Matt Howard.

What made Butler so endearing was this ability to continually look -- and be -- overmatched, yet somehow find a way to win. It has no big-name players destined for early entry into the pros. Their top scorers, Shelvin Mack and Howard, are not flashy. They win by playing old-fashioned team basketball built around tough defense and doing all of the "little things" right.

They also have Stevens, one of the best of the young coaches in college basketball. He looks like a choirboy, but he is just as determined as his team.

Butler came to the Final Four as an underdog, but in a surprising turn of events, they played another Cinderella team, Virginia Commonwealth, in the national semifinals.

While big-time programs Connecticut and Kentucky were battling it out on the other side of the draw, Butler and VCU showed that unheralded programs could make remarkable runs.

VCU, a team whose record was so undistinguished that its players did not expect a bid to the NCAA tournament, looked even more impressive than Butler in getting to the Final Four. They had dominated several of their higher-ranked opponents with full-court pressure and a relentless up-tempo game. VCU was a joy to watch.

However, Butler, after the usual pattern of looking overmatched early, came back to prevail.

Much has been written about how the final was a poorly played game. Butler was only 12 for 64 from the field, and Connecticut was not much better at 19 for 55. It is true that Butler, particularly in the second half, could not get any shots to drop. But give some credit to Connecticut's defense and rebounding inside.

Butler's defense held them in the game for a half, but the strain of playing bigger, faster teams finally caught up to them.

Still, it was a wonderful run for Butler. I am proud of them. Give Jim Calhoun, Connecticut's veteran coach, another title, but his program is under a cloud for recruiting violations -- with significant sanctions to come next season.

On the other side of the draw, Kentucky's John Calipari is another big-name coach with a history of questionable recruiting practices.

You'll see few seniors in either Connecticut's or Kentucky's program. Upperclassmen, if starters, are usually long-gone.

Yet at Butler you have seniors like Matt Howard still playing and still helping to unload the team bus.

We often make too much of sports in this country -- too much television, too much money, too much hype.

But let us take a moment to honor the Butler Bulldogs.

They gave us a glimpse of how a college basketball program can be successful without being overbearing.