Call them unlikely. Call them underdogs. Call them whatever you want.
Tthe Butler Bulldogs climb into the ring tomorrow night with forty minutes of perfection standing between them and immortality.
The small school from America’s heartland, hailing from a conference few fans realized even existed, can climb the podium as the NCAA’s top team.
Raining hay-makers, Brad Stevens and his Bulldogs have knocked out teams from three heavyweight conferences.
Now, 25 wins in a row, including five in the NCAA Tournament, Stevens and his squad stand toe-to-toe with one of the heaviest of heavyweights, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils.
In his third year of coaching, Stevens gets to trade jabs with Coach K—winner of three NCAA titles.
Butler’s run is monumental enough to bear a slight resemblance to when Michael Spinks won the Olympic Gold.
The year was 1976.
A time when boxing still captured the interest of many. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman ruled the professional ranks, but the U.S.A. enjoyed little amateur success up to that point in history.
That is until the Summer Olympics of 1976.
The United States boxing corps that went to Montreal came to be known as “The Golden Team.” A bunch of unlikely kids brought home seven medals.
“Big” John Tate took the bronze in the heavyweight division.
Charles Mooney won the bantamweight silver.
Leo Randolph, Howard Davis, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Leon Spinks all struck gold.
As did maybe the most unlikeliest of all, Michael Spinks. The 19-year-old Spinks entered the tournament as an underdog in the experienced Middleweight division.
Like the Butler Bulldogs, Spinks advanced in a manner that created skepticism. Nicknamed “The Jinx,” Spinks coasted through the Olympics. Butler’s ride shows some of those same charmed traits.
Before a punch was even thrown, Spinks, by virtue of the draw, caught a break when he avoided Cuba’s Luis Felipe Martinez until the finals.
Butler’s weakest outing of The Dance came, perhaps, against their weakest opponent. After eliminating UTEP in the opening round, the Bulldogs overcame a halftime deficit to defeat thirteen-seed Murray State.
Maybe the less-than-convincing victory affected their next-round opponent, the Syracuse Orange. Whether he needed to or not, Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Boeheim chose to sit injured-senior center, Arinze Onuaku.
Minus ten points and five rebounds, the No. 1 seed Orange fell 63-59.
Spinks won his first Olympic fight without throwing a punch when Cameroon’s Jean-Marie Emebe forfeited .
Boxing, like basketball, does not account for style points.
Butler advanced to take on Kansas State.
Dogged by a double-overtime victory two days earlier, the Wildcats played without an edge. Their problems compounded five minutes in when point guard Denis Clemente rolled his ankle.
Butler took advantage and won 63-56.
The St. Louis native was anything but overwhelming when he won his second fight, a close decision over Poland’s Ryszard Pasiewicz.
As the saying goes—a win is a win.
Butler’s first Final Four found them facing a Michigan State team minus their starting point guard, Kalin Lucas. Ten minutes into the game, Raymar Morgan took a seat on the bench with his third foul.
The Bulldogs triumphed 52-50.
Spinks moved to the Gold Medal match when Romania’s Alec Nastac was forced to forfeit.
Spinks never faced the favorite. Cuba’s Martinez lost to Russia’s Rufat Riskiyev. Spinks continued his run with a TKO in the third and final round.
Butler will look to get a TKO of their own when they take the floor at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bulldogs have held each of their tournament opponents under 60. The only time Duke scored less than 60 this year, they won. Stevens and his squad hope to change those fortunes.