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As inevitable as headlines saying “the Butler did it,” Butler University’s presence in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four has dredged up the comparisons with the movie “Hoosiers.” It’s a facile exercise, considering Butler’s status as a relatively small fish in the NCAA pond, and its home court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, where as the 1986 movie taught us, the dimensions of the court are the same as our gym back in Hickory.
However, Butler has as little in common with the 1951-52 Hickory Huskers as the very urban IUPUI, which used “Hoosiers” as its inspiration when it made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2003, and Notre Dame center Ruth Riley, who thought of little Ollie shooting his underhanded free throws when she hit the game-winning freebies to give the Irish the 2001 NCAA women’s title. Butler is a team full of talent, beyond Gordon Hayward as Jimmy Chitwood (though Hayward looks more like he could star in “The Rade Butcher Story”), and it’s had a sustained period of success, with three appearances in the round of 16 since 2003.
Instead, the plucky high school team Butler resembles the most is not fictional, but very real — the 1954 Milan Indians, whose “improbable” Indiana high school basketball title run inspired “Hoosiers.”
Despite the Cinderella story, Milan was no out-of-nowhere team in 1954. In 1952-53, Milan went 24-5 and reached the final four of the Indiana state boys high school basketball tournament under a baby-faced coach in his mid 20s named Marvin Wood. (Milan lost to South Bend Central, Hickory’s opponent in “Hoosiers.”) The nucleus of that team was back for 1953-54, including Bobby Plump.
The 1953-54 Milan team went 28-2 — 28 being the number of Butler’s regular-season victories this year. Just like Butler, Milan mostly dominated its similarly sized competition. Despite the movie’s depiction of a series of tight games, Milan cruised through the tournament, not facing a close game until its legendary 32-30 nailbiter final in Butler Fieldhouse (Tony Hinkle was still alive and coaching Butler at that point) against Muncie Central, a game won by Plump’s last shot. (Plump’s Last Shot 40 years later, became the name of a Indianapolis restaurant co-owned by Plump.)
Meanwhile, baby-faced Butler coach Brad Stevens, age 33, is bringing his Bobby Plump, Hayward, into the NCAA Final Four, after previous success led to expected excellence (Butler at one point was a top 10-rated team during the regular season) as the Bulldogs dominated their similarly sized competition (the Horizon League). By the way, just to close this circle, Plump played his college basketball at… Butler, and, until Matt Howard broke it during the regional final, he had still held the school’s record for most free throws made.
This is not to say Butler shouldn’t milk the “Hoosiers” connection. With the Final Four five miles south on Capitol Avenue at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, I look forward to Stevens breaking out the tape measure, and having Hayward stand on a ladder to hold one end to the rim, and Shelvin Mack on the floor holding one end on the free throw line. Stevens could call the picket fence, with Hayward as a decoy, and Hayward telling Stevens, after the team shakes its head thinking back to that game against Oolitic: “I can hit that shot.”
Anyway, I presume that while Bulldogs fans want their story to end just like Milan (or “Hoosiers,” for that matter), they don’t want Stevens to do what Marvin Wood did after Milan’s title — leave for a bigger school.