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April 4, 2010
Meant to Be
Duke and Butler

by John Gasaway

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Neither Butler nor Duke wholly deserves the labels that are being placed on them even as I write this. We've been over this, but the Bulldogs are not your typical mid-major underdog . They're better. And Duke is not your customary big scary one-seed in the national championship game, or BSOSINTCG. There've been five BSOSINTCG's the last three years and they all came bearing stars who were lottery picks in the ensuing draft, to wit: Greg Oden, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Brandon Rush, and Tyler Hansbrough. Duke most likely has none.

Be that as it may, Butler is a Horizon League team playing for the national championship. Against Duke. Contrasts will be drawn.

(5) Butler 52, (5) Michigan State 50 [58 possessions]
In my preview of this game I said Tom Izzo's reputation for defense and rebounding had been eclipsing this team's reality in the tournament, but goodness did the defense return with a vengeance last night against the Bulldogs. The ten-minute FG drought suffered by Brad Stevens' team in the second half will be taken as proof that Butler is impotent on offense, and it's true that this team's strength is its D. But the Spartans made their opponent look much worse on offense than any team that's made it this far could possibly be. The Bulldogs couldn't get anything in the paint all night, and for that credit goes to Draymond Green, Delvon Roe, and even the foul-plagued Raymar Morgan.

But while we're handing out credit, this same Bulldog team that couldn't make a shot to save its life was preventing Michigan State from getting offensive rebounds. It's been rightly pointed out that teams who hit the offensive glass tended to do well in this tournament. Then again at this point we should probably add a qualifier to that statement. Teams who hit the offensive glass do well in this tournament, until they play Butler.

The Spartans mark the latest installment in a remarkable Syracuse-Kansas State-Michigan State trifecta of swaggering offensive-glass beast-victims. All of those teams rebounded more than 38 percent of their misses in conference play. A while back I pointed out that every presumably big scary team being fitted for a one-seed (Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, and Duke) actually wasn't that good at defensive rebounding. Butler is. Ask the Spartans, who last night hauled in just 28 percent of their misses. Gordon Hayward recorded nine defensive boards, including the decisive one on Korie Lucious' intentionally missed free throw with two seconds remaining.

So it has happened. Depending on how you define "mid-major," Butler is the first mid-major in the national championship game in forever. No, Memphis two years ago doesn't qualify. Utah 12 years ago? That's more like it, though the Horizon League today is arguably a good deal more mid-majory than the WAC back then. (The Utes jumped to the Mountain West in 1999-2000). Besides, that Utah team was a three-seed. No, your friends who are casual fans are right to be genuinely interested by this. Butler's trying to do something that it has been said simply can't be done.

They're trying to win a national championship from beyond the gates.

(1) Duke 78, (2) West Virginia 57 [54]
We can divide this game into its first 31 minutes and its last nine, meaning before and after Da'Sean Butler went down with his knee injury. When Butler went out of the game Duke was up 63-48, thanks to an incredible performance on offense against the same defense that made Kentucky look hapless. What a difference three-point shooting makes. The Blue Devils in this game were truly Cornell-like.

Clark Kellogg called the threes that Duke was making "warm-up jump shots," but that's a little unfair to West Virginia. In warm-up's you don't have to get a feed from a teammate off his dribble-drive or offensive board. Time and time again the Mountaineer D was collapsed--whether by a drive or a missed shot--and then hit with a three before it could re-expand to cover the shooter. Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith were a combined 12-of-23 on their threes. After one Singler make in the first half I saw Kevin Jones shake his head in disgust, for Jones had been all over Singler throughout the possession and had done everything right. He had, but on this night nothing Duke did on offense could be wrong.

Now, about the Bob Huggins-Da'Sean Butler moment 31 minutes into the game. Up to that time everything was as it should be. It's a national semifinal and Twitter is providing a rolling commentary that you can't possibly hope to keep up with. Then Butler crumpled to the floor and there was the usual pause in the commentary.

But then that pause became genuine silence. It was quickly obvious that Butler had suffered a bad knee injury. Huggins came out onto the floor and got off some choice words in the ref's direction. Then, as if not seeing the contrast between what he'd just done and what he was about to do, the coach got down on his knees and cradled Butler's head while his player was still lying on his back writhing in pain. He hugged Butler--who was still lying down--and whispered in his ear. Even Twitter didn't have a word to add.

The etiquette for a coach when a player's injured is always treacherous. Some coaches don't even go to the player, leaving that to the trainer. Others go out and stand over their fallen charge, which looks even worse. But I've seen a lot of basketball in my life, and I've never seen a coach do quite what Bob Huggins did last night. To my eyes he has always given the appearance of one who doesn't care at all about appearances, sometimes to his detriment. (I am also well aware that earlier in the game Huggins didn't seem very pleased with Butler.) But last night that disregard for appearances made quite an appearance. It showed 70,000 people in Lucas Oil Stadium the eloquence of deeds.

John's not terribly eloquent on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Beyond Their Years (04/05)

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