The game played out like the Hollywood script it was meant to emulate. Monday night’s dramatic championship game ended with Duke edging Butler 61-59. But that was only the score, not the full story. Duke’s fourth national championship was earned the hard way. Neither team ever led by more than six points. It was back and forth all night. Tight defense, missed shots, clutch baskets, mistakes, and suspense throughout.
Then there was the end. Butler with the ball, down by one, 60–59. The shot clock is off. All I know is one shot wins the game. A Butler shot. Isn’t that what the script called for?
My heart raced at least 20 beats faster. Could it really happen? Butler’s Gordon Hayward, the Brownsburg, Indiana kid who appears destined to become the next Hoosier legend, has the ball, he drives right. Hayward stops. He arcs the ball ever so slightly over long outstretched arms. Long enough it seems to throw off the shot. Duke rebound. Butler quickly fouls. Two shots. The first one hits. The second looks like it was deliberately missed. Butler rebound. Less than four seconds on the clock. Ball quickly to Hayward.
Hayward takes a couple of dribbles then heaves a half-court desperation shot which finds the mark, circles the rim, and spins away. If it falls Butler wins. It doesn’t.
Then the stunning realization that there would be no shining moment for Butler. And the “Hoosiers” sequel had ended with a loss.
There are no excuses, but there are facts. When Butler could have taken control of the game, guys missed point blank layups. Hayward missed nine of 11 shots throughout the game. Butler also missed critical free throws down the stretch. And Butler’s normally impenetrable defense failed to stop a couple of inbounds passes which turned into easy Duke points. Add up those lapses and you can make a case for Butler comfortably winning the game.
But that is woulda, coulda, shoulda. The fact is, Duke, the long acknowledged masters of college basketball won another title the way the team always does—by being just a little bit more precise, by hitting a few more clutch baskets, and by listening to their coach.
I’m still a little numb right now. I was all in for the magical ending. I really thought Butler would pull it off. And here at the end I thought fate could not have crafted a better ending. But it didn’t happen.
History tells us Duke will more than likely play for another title in the near future. But fairy tales, like the one that Butler just played the starring role in, suggest that the Bulldogs may have been to their first and last Final Four.
While Butler’s magical cinderella season is over, the talent remains. Butler is NOT George Mason. They are not one-season wonders. Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard return next season, as do most of the team’s supporting cast, and in the wings there is an excellent recruiting class.
If pollsters are fair, the Bulldogs will enter next season ranked no worse than fifth. Some might even rank them number one.
But before we get too excited Butler needs to do a couple of things first if the school wants this success to sustain itself and grow.
Capitalize on the exposure and grow the program. The dollar value of the exposure Butler got from this unique run to the Final Four is in the many millions. The team will never be more popular than it is now.
Pay the coach a competitive salary and increase the basketball budget. This team can go all the way again next year and Butler has a lot of good players waiting in the queue. They can’t let Brad Stevens go now. Find the money to pay him more, even ask Indy’s drug company, Eli Lilly, Stevens’ former employer, to help pay him if you need to.
Sell out Hinkle Fieldhouse. There should be no more empty seats, not for this team and not for future teams. Having a big time program means you must fill the arena at home.
Butler has arrived as a national power. How powerful is up to the university. But one thing is clear: With all the talent at Butler right now, there is no reason to think they cannot return to the final game. With one more year of experience the team’s core players should be even better next season.
Losing to Duke is not the end for Butler, but a beginning. Though it is the end of Butler’s Cinderella story. The Bulldogs are no longer a secret and will no longer be taken lightly by anyone.