Butler's Victory: College Basketball's Tectonic Plates Have Shifted
Coach K is a brilliant speaker who can always come up with a quick response.
His fourth national championship victory had just been secured. He stood with his players in front of the crowd, a microphone held before him, and was asked a question that he clearly wasn't expecting: whether, out of all his championship victories, this one could be called the best.
He looked surprised, stammered for half a second, and gave the politically correct response: "Yes, this one was the best."
Then he probably immediately began drafting in his head the letter of apology he would send to all of the former superstars he just threw under the bus.
How could he explain to Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, or Jason Williams what he'd just said? Was there any way to do it? Would a standard Coach K "We're all winners" axiom suffice?
The plain truth is that, not only was this not the best Duke championship team ever, this wasn't even a very good Duke team at all. Their play was erratic, their decision-making suspect, their performance in this championship game unimpressive on the smaller and the larger scale.
If the game against Butler were not for the championship, but just a regular-season matchup, Duke's narrow escape by two points would be cause for concern. It might even make a headline: "What Went Wrong in Indianapolis?"
The Duke teams of the past were so scary because they were so poised. Every player knew the game plan like he knew his own name. Watching them, you almost had the feeling that they had already played the game before and were just going through the motions for the second time.
The passes were crisp around the perimeter. Their shot selection was flawless. Their defense was like a finely tuned machine. And they had an answer for everything.
Watching your team play them, their telepathic connection with each other was infuriating, and you had the sense that the only way you could beat them was if they were injured, you were Carolina, or their basket had a lid on it.
The team that put on Duke's uniforms Monday night was a completely different animal. Guys were falling all over the floor. Three players went up for the same rebound and collided. On offense, they sometimes didn't know what to do with the ball when they caught it, looking around for help; when a set play broke down, they became frantic.
The hallmark of Coach K's offense, that perfect spacing on the floor, was nonexistent—and their defense was like bumblebee soccer, running around after the guy with the ball and getting in each other's way. Nobody was poised. Nobody was patient. That just wasn't the Duke team we had all learned to regard with terror.
Sure, these guys are pretty good individually. Kyle Singler is a fair version of Mike Dunleavy. Nolan Smith has a better shot than Chris Duhon, with weaker defense. But none of these guys is electric like Bobby Hurley, dominant like Elton Brand, or clutch like Christian Laettner.
Seriously, could this team have beaten Kentucky in the Greatest Game Ever Played? Could it have beaten that Arizona team in 2001 with Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, and Loren Woods? Could it have beaten Bobby Knight in his prime or UNLV in that crazy juggernaut run? Could it have even beaten the Duke teams with Chris Carawell and Wojo?
As it was, they beat a mid-major No. 5 seed in a one-possession game. The only claim Duke can really make this year is that the top has come down so much in college basketball that there was no one left to play at the end of the tournament.
While the top has come down, however, the bottom has come up. The victory Butler can celebrate is that, even if it hasn't forced a change, it has signaled a shifting of the tectonic plates in college basketball.
Years later, folks will look back on this tournament as the year of Butler. Duke will be a detail. That they didn't win a championship won't stop the conversation.
It's not about the Hoosiers storyline, the "little school that could," to give encouragement to all the small-conference schools that play tough and believe in themselves. It's about the entire landscape changing.
Butler didn't beat Michigan State and nearly beat Duke because they spontaneously caught fire, like George Mason, only to get slammed by a really good team. They were actually good enough, and—as they've made obvious by now—they can do it again.
That's the lesson Butler taught us: From now on, this can be done again.
When Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins changed the landscape of the NBA, everybody wanted to see the athletes who could run like cheetahs and jump out of the gym.
Athletes trained that way, and the game changed. The old-heads bemoaned the lack of fundamentals, the errant passes and bad shot selection and terrible low-post footwork, but the world wanted to see flash. We got it, and it's been awesome.
But with the departure of Shaun Livingston and J.R. Smith from college commitments to the NBA, with LeBron James and Dwight Howard going pro, college basketball lost a lot of top-level talent. With that, the top programs suffered.
Big-time coaches had built their systems around athletes with superhuman abilities and now all of a sudden were left with the dregs in the bottom of the mug of high-priced coffee, the kids who could jump really high but couldn't get into the NBA and hadn't learned any fundamentals on the way.
The small-time programs? They just did what they'd always done.
The small schools never had Vince Carter or Tim Duncan. They had always relied on good defense, rebounding, moving without the ball. And with the big programs flailing about, the smaller programs got tournament experience. The top programs were beatable, and the smaller schools could do it with their fundamentally sound play.
Now, we've got what the old-heads had wanted for the past 20 years: a huge collection of mid-major teams who got themselves enough good experience against big programs that they can do this any time they want. The difference between a No. 1 seed and a No. 5 seed, in today's NCAA, is two points.
Where was West Virginia in 2005? Pulling off an upset. Where was Butler in 2001, 2003, and 2007? Pulling off upsets. Where were they in 2010? In the Final Four.
The 19-year-old rule has been passed in the NBA, but the window has been open for small schools for long enough that the shift is now complete. The college game has changed. It hasn't gone back in time, but it's reached back for what used to work and made itself ultimately stronger.
Analogize with me here: When the Lakers signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton to join Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, we were all ready to hand them the championship. Just take it, we said; save everyone some time.
But then the Pistons came along, with a ragtag group of misfits and a brilliant coach who taught them to "play the right way," and beat the Lakers in five games. That was awesome for the fans. It was liberating.
When the Patriots brought in Randy Moss to play with Tom Brady, they steamrolled through the NFL, and we all threw up our hands. What point was there in rooting for anyone during a season like that? But then the Giants came along and played defense like a solid wall and proved that you can't buy a championship. The nation sighed in relief.
We love that guts, teamwork, and smart decisions are still relevant. We're refreshed by the idea that you don't have to have certain genes to win. The fact that Butler isn't a champion won't take it out of the conversation. Duke received the same warning on Monday that the Lakers and the Patriots did: Nice try, but there are no guarantees anymore.
I don't feel happy for Duke that they won. For a Duke player, winning just makes the caviar taste better. Duke winning a championship is like a 16-year-old buddy telling you his dad bought him a Corvette for his birthday. You want him to feel good, but...did he really do anything?
Butler has accomplished something more profound. They didn't just "win one for the little guys." They gave a warning, and with that came a guarantee. This wasn't a fluke; this is the way the game is going to be now—and the big programs had better get used to it.
Butler didn't personify Hoosiers. They personified Stand by Me.
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