Monday, April 5, 2010

Butler's historic run falls just short, but credit Duke — the Blue Devils earned it

ON BASKETBALL

The shot hung in the air, decended and kissed off the backboard, then softly hit the rim ... before bouncing harmlessly away. A little bit better of a carom, and it might have fallen. It might have created the greatest moment in the history of college basketball. It might have captivated 97 percent of college hoops fans in this country.

But, alas, Gordon Hayward's heave from just inside halfcourt was slightly off the mark. After his fade-away jumper over Brian Zoubek was just long seconds earlier. And Duke won the national title, 61-59, in Butler-dominated Indianapolis Monday night, surging back to the top of the college basketball world for the first time since 2001 after a game that a shocked Mike Krzyzewski — "I still can't believe we won," he said — called a "classic" and the toughest of his eight national-title game clashes.

The potential story was irisistable. Butler, the small school from the Horizon League, beating Duke, Krzyzewski, his three national titles and handful of All-Americans. But, hey, it didn't happen — and the result should not take anything away from a Duke team that, it could be argued, was just as overlooked as a national-title contender as the Bulldogs for most of the season.

"As good as the Butler story is and will be, their story is pretty good too," Krzyzewski said afterward about his team.

And he's right. This win, this season, was never about Coach K going for his fourth national title. Rather, it was about a group of players who struggled through three years in which they improved but ultimately were judged, perhaps unfairly, against the Duke pedigree. Blue Devils seniors Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Zoubek didn't win an NCAA Tournament game their freshman season, won just one two years ago and were rudely dismissed by Villanova in the Sweet 16 a year ago.

Throughout this season, even as the wins piled up, Krzyzewski refrained from calling his team great. First they were good. Then really good. But not great. It took until late Monday night, after all the confetting had fallen, for Krzyzewski to finally huddle his exuberant players together and tell them twice: "You are a great team. You are a great team."

And great they were. You can talk about the Devils getting an "easy" NCAA Tournament draw and a few lucky bounces along the way. But the bottom line, all that matters, is that winning six consecutive games is never, ever easy. Duke earned this title as much as any championship team, and got the absolute most out of every player's ability.

"It means the world to us, especially our senior class," Thomas said. "To leave champions, we maxed out our season, maxed out our practices, played every game the season had to offer us."

The last one won't be forgotten for a long time. This was one of those games that clarifies for all of us what great competition is all about. There weren't any highlight dunks. No SportsCenter Top 10 nominees. No, this was all about stellar defense on both ends; about gritty pileups for loose balls; about both teams earning every point, every free throw.

Appropriately, no two teams better exemplified during this season the ability to win without shooting the ball well than Duke and Butler. Heck, the Bulldogs somehow beat Michigan State in the semifinals despite shooting 15-for-49. They weren't much better Monday, making just 20 of 58 shots (34.5 percent) including a putrid 12-of-50 performance by their starting five.

Yet they remained in the game, never allowing Duke's lead to eclipse five points in the second half. They got stops against the bigger, stronger Devils, and after two Matt Howard layups, were within a point, at 60-59, in the final minute.

But Hayward's baseline jumper over the towering Zoubek clanked off the back of the rim. And after Zoubek made a free throw and then missed the second intentionally with 3.6 seconds remaining, and after Hayward took the perfect amount of dribbles and benefitted from a knee-buckling screen Howard set on Kyle Singler (maybe legal, maybe not), his final heave was barely off the mark. Oh, so close.

"I thought Gordon’s shot had a chance," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "Anytime you have a player of Gordon's caliber and he’s got the ball in his hands and lets it fly, you feel like you have a chance to win."

And, really, what more could the Bulldogs have asked for, but a chance to win a national title in the final seconds? Well, how about winning that championship?

Don't get this team pinned wrong. It had every intention of coming out on top Monday night, of providing college basketball fans with perhaps the greatest story in the history of the modern era of the sport.

"For me, it’s going to be the loss (I remember)," a devastated Hayward said. "I hate losing. … It’s great for us to be here, but that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to win."

Said Stevens, after his three players had been dismissed from the postgame press conference: "You could see listening to our three guys, they’re crushed. This mattered. They wanted to win. It’s really hard for them to come straight in here and answer questions."

And as Stevens admitted, it will take awhile for the Bulldogs to get over this disappointment, to be able to put a season that included a 25-game winning streak in perspective. As for the winners, they felt for the Bulldogs afterward.

"It was the toughest game we’ve played in all year," Scheyer said. "It’s hard that one of those teams had to feel that way."

But as we all know, every great game, every instant classic, must have a loser — sometimes more lovable than others. On this occasion, most of a nation mourned for a Bulldogs squad that kept proving people wrong, kept surprising opponents when the pundits thought they had finally met their match.

It's OK, though, to mourn for one team and feel elated for another. And that's the best way to view this classic. Be happy for Zoubek, the big, bruising Duke center who overcame two summers spent on crutches — "It was really hard to imagine being in this position (then)," he said Monday night — to become, as Coach K said, the key player who elevated his game down the stretch of the season and had 11 big rebounds Monday.

Be happy for Nolan Smith, who played the game of his life against Baylor in the Elite 8 on the road to winning a national title in the same city as his late father, Derek Smith, who did it for Louisville in 1980. Be happy for Scheyer and Thomas, Duke's other seniors who withstood three subpar seasons — at least by Duke standards — to return the program to the top.

And simply be happy that you witnessed a game — not to mention a tournament — that won't be forgotten for a long time.

"I think it'll become a historic game," Krzyzewski said. "It's the best one I've been involved in of the eight (national title games he's coached in).

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