Butler finds a way to beat VCU
You can watch again and again — five straight NCAA tournament games now and counting — and still not understand how they do it.
They'll miss layups, brick wide-open threes, look like they're in trouble, and then — Boom! — the gutsiest, most improbable group of winners this tournament has ever seen will find a way to make ugly look beautiful.
Butler's back in the national championship game.
Let's repeat that ... Butler is back in the national championship game. And the greatest two-year run in NCAA tournament history continues.
They've become so familiar now — Brad Stevens, Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and the rest — that it's easy to lose perspective on exactly what's going on here.
Taking away all context, the fact that No. 8 seed Butler beat No. 11 seed VCU was no more surprising in the Final Four than it would have been in a February BracketBuster game. What happened in last night's national semifinal, however, was bigger than that — and honestly, bigger than whichever team wins a national title Monday.
It's impossible to overstate.
Understand that making just one national championship game requires either dominance, luck or a combination of both. To do it twice in a row — to survive foul trouble, a night of cold shooting and come out on the right side of a series of one-possession games — is historic.
But for Butler to do it? It's practically impossible.
In the last 25 years, only five other programs have played for a national championship in consecutive years: Florida (2006-07), Kentucky (1996-98), Arkansas (1994-95), Michigan (1992-93) and Duke (1991-92).
Those programs were supposed to be there. In every conceivable way from its recruiting base to its conference affiliation, Butler is not.
"There are certain guys who think they should be playing in these games," said Stevens, who seems to have quite a few of them.
Still, the question persists: How does Butler's once-in-a-lifetime chance at the national title happen twice? It's impossible to explain, but by now, easy to predict.
The very first game of this NCAA tournament against Old Dominion, Stevens gave his players a simple plan. The first team to score 60, he said, would win. Four straight times, Stevens was right. And then last night, even as the Bulldogs shot too many threes (8 for 23), missed a handful of layups and couldn't defend a pick-and-roll, there they were, stuck on 58 points with the clock tumbling toward the three-minute mark.
After trailing early, then leading at halftime, then falling behind again with 12:51 left, the Bulldogs had regained a four-point edge, needing one more bucket to get to the magical 60-point mark that had been so good to them throughout the tournament.
A few moments earlier, senior guard Shawn Vanzant had airballed a three-footer. And yet on the game's key possession, Mack, who'd made 8 of 11 field goals, didn't hesitate kicking it out to Vanzant in the corner opposite Butler's bench.
When Van Zant's three went through, giving Butler a 61-54 lead, it symbolized exactly why this team's done what it's done.
"You have to trust your teammates and do your job and not do something you're not capable of doing," Mack said. "I've seen Shawn knock down his shot plenty of times. It was the right basketball play to make."
Butler always seems to make the right basketball play, always seems to have just enough. It's not a coincidence. It's been that way now in 10 of the 11 tournament games this group's played the last two years.
But for the moment, the one that didn't go their way looms large heading into Monday's championship. Though the outcome won't take away from the accomplishment of making the final again, there is indeed a sense that Butler has unfinished business from last season, when Gordon Hayward's half-court shot against Duke fell off the rim as time expired.
It wasn't necessarily that way when the tournament began, with Butler getting a No. 8 seed and not really appearing capable of another run like that. But now, with just 40 minutes left to a title, redemption is very real.
"There was a feeling of disbelief because of what our team had been doing," Howard said, referring to a 25-game winning streak heading into last year's championship. "Tonight, it was just like any other game, weirdly enough. I don't think we let our surroundings get to us. We didn't really feel necessarily like a national semifinal, and I think that's a good thing. It helps you play just like you normally would."
What's normal for Butler, however, is a bit different than what seems normal for everybody else. Nobody does ugly better than Butler. Nobody is better at playing bad. And clearly, once in a lifetime doesn't apply.