Monday, March 29, 2010

Cinderella to the Palace

The Butler Way is defined on the school's website as "teamwork, working hard, giving selflessly, having fun and making a difference."  Idyllic as it sounds, it's not difficult to see those qualities in those who play and coach on the Bulldog basketball team.

Giving selflessly: check. Guards Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored average a combined 7 assists per game.

Working hard: check. Forward Gordon Hayward collects over 8 rebounds per game in spite of his lean physique (6'9", but only 207 pounds).

Having fun: check.  Head coach Brad Stevens is a willing supporter of showing a little spirit.

As for teamwork and working hard, you would have to be living in a doghouse to not have heard what these Bulldogs have accomplished.  Despite sharing their state with Larry Bird's alma mater, two Big Ten schools and Touchdown Jesus, Butler has built a program that has won its last 24 games in a row (leading the nation) and was ranked in the national Top 25 polls for most of the regular season.  The Bulldogs' small-time conference background (the Horizon League, formerly known as the home of Valparaiso and Bryce Drew), was proved irrelevant when they beat Big Ten champ Ohio State and Sweet 16 qualifer Xavier in back-to-back games in December.  Yet in spite of all they accomplished, Stevens' team still carried the underdog label all the way into March, the "liberal arts university" with only 4,000 students that was still more famous for its historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, the filming location of the sports cinema classic Hoosiers, than for its own team playing in that building.

In the space of 4 games and 11 days, the Bulldogs showed us again, like Davidson and George Mason before them, why this tournament is so much fun.  During the first weekend, they beat No. 12 seed UTEP in the opening round and downed No. 13 seed Murray State in the second round to propel them to their first Sweet 16 in 3 years.  Those wins were not hard to believe, but when senior forward Willie Veasley hit a 3-pointer and tipped in a Mack miss to give his team a six-point lead with under a minute to play against No. 1 seed Syracuse, people started talking.

What if?

It's a question that Stevens simply would not ponder during a wildly successful regular season, one that he managed to stave off until after the win over Murray State. Now that Butler had matched its highest threshold of success seen in this decade, why shouldn't he fantasize about how cool it would be to take out the No. 1 seed in their region?  What did they have to lose?
A minute later, the Bulldogs found themselves two halves of All-American basketball away from a Final Four berth.  Even more astounding was their timing: what are the chances that of all the arenas in the country, this year's host site happened to be Indianapolis, just five miles from their very own campus?  Might that have been extra motivation for their matchup against second-seeded Kansas State? 

Call it luck if you can't believe it.  Call it fate if you can't understand it.  Call it good basketball if you like, for that's what it really is.  Any way you slice it, the Butler Way shines through. At the end of an evening of stifling Bulldog defense, punctuated by two Nored steals in the last 30 seconds of Sunday's game against Frank Martin's Wildcats, you saw the Butler Bulldogs boarding a flight from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis with a West Regional trophy in hand.

It's not an original plot line, at least not in concept, but somehow, that doesn't make this journey any less exciting than the ones before it.  And it's not done yet.

To quote a younger Gus Johnson: "The slipper still fits!"

Mountaineering With a Vengeance
What was it like to watch Kentucky's debacle with West Virginia on Saturday night in a Memphis restaurant? (Shout out to Central BBQ!)

I'll tell you. Righteous euphoria, the kind you haven't seen since Shaq nanny-nanny-boo-booed Kobe by winning the NBA crown with Miami in '06.  In a well-occupied dining area dominated by a projection screen TV, the enthusiasm with which Memphians cheered on the Mountaineers proved just how much hate and hurt was left over from the Calipari era.  Every time Cal appeared on screen, boos and jeers echoed from almost every booth and table, and when West Virginia pulled ahead near the end of the game, there was almost a standing ovation, cheers that didn't celebrate Bob Huggins' crew as much as they applauded Calipari's demise.

Had the John Wall and Wildcats made the Final Four, it would have been a crushing blow for a city that was unfairly stripped of all its basketball success because of one man's transgressions, but thankfully, justice was served, at least for this year. (Watch out Kentucky. I've said it once already - you make the bed you lie in.)  I hope I get to see the same level of enthusiasm for a successful Josh Pastner-led Tigers' squad sometime before I graduate, and my gut says it will be sooner rather than later.  Can't wait.

Spartan Resilience
Michigan State's bid to Indianapolis marked Tom Izzo's sixth trip the Final Four in twelve seasons. My question is, does that really surprise anyone? The guy's only been doing this for fifteen years straight - drawing in a solid group of recruits, teaching them to rebound and play hard-nosed blue-collar basketball in one of the best facilities in America and eventually pushing them to be 20+ win teams.  In his tenure, Izzo has yet to go a full four years without making the Final Four.  That means every recruit signed by Izzo that has continued to play basketball all four years and matriculated academically through his senior year has played in the Final Four.  I don't see how anyone can turn down an opportunity like that.  So, uh, if I all-but-guaranteed you a spot in the Final Four a year or two from now, would you take it?  The real question is why you wouldn't take it.  How man people can say they've played in the Final Four? Not many that I know.  I'm surprised high schoolers haven't started camping outside HIS house, Cameron Crazies-style, just to be able to show him their face.  He's the one with all the talent (pun intended).

As you might have guessed, I'm rooting for whoever wins the Butler-MSU game.

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