A little after 9 Eastern Time on the evening of February 3, Butler head coach Brad Stevens walked to mid court and shook hands with Youngstown State head coach Jerry Slocum. Stevens' 14-9 Bulldogs had just lost to Slocum's 8-14 Penguins by the score of 62-60. The team that had captivated much of the nation by reaching the 2010 national championship game had blown a 10-point lead in the last six minutes and lost to the Horizon League's last-place team.
"I thought we had some opportunities," Stevens said after the game. It was Butler's third consecutive defeat, coming on the heels of overtime losses to Milwaukee and Valparaiso. And as Stevens sat in a sparsely attended media room at the Beeghly Center in Youngstown, Ohio, there was absolutely no reason to think that in less than 60 days Butler would be wearing home whites in a national semifinal. Quite the opposite, it seemed probable that the Bulldogs wouldn't even make the field of 68.
We know how this story ends, of course, which is why I'm writing about Butler in late March. Since that night in Youngstown, the Bulldogs have gone 13-0. On Saturday Stevens' team will take the court at Reliant Stadium in Houston and play Virginia Commonwealth. If they win, Butler will make its second consecutive appearance in the national championship game, a feat that can only be termed staggering for a Horizon League university with a total enrollment of fewer than 5,000 students.
You may have noticed that some of the Bulldogs' wins in the NCAA tournament have been rather close, dramatic, and perhaps even incredible. Here's a brief recap of the highlights:
--In the round of 64, Matt Howard rebounded an Andrew Smith miss and laid the ball in the basket in the game's final second, giving Butler a 60-58 win over Old Dominion.
--With the score tied and one second remaining in their game against No. 1 seed Pitt, Howard was fouled 90 feet from his basket by Nasir Robinson. The Butler senior sank the first free throw and deliberately missed the second, resulting in a 71-70 win for the Bulldogs.
--Florida took Butler to overtime in the Elite Eight and led by a point with 1:21 to go, when Shelvin Mack hit a three-pointer to give the Bulldogs the lead for good on their way to a 74-71 win.
Butler has won their four tournament games by a total of 13 points, tying the record set last year by Michigan State for the smallest winning margin recorded by a Final Four team since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. And, as seen here, three of those four wins were about as close as victories can get.
Maybe these close wins were payback for those three equally close losses that Butler suffered in Horizon League play back in January and February. And, anyway, it would require a peculiar sensibility to criticize the Bulldogs for beating the very long odds that face any No. 8 seed and pulling off the upset over a No. 1 seed -- but not doing so by "enough" points.
Nevertheless, it is true that Butler is no stranger to close NCAA tournament games. The Bulldogs are now 9-1 over the past two tournaments. Eight of those wins have come by single-digit margins, and six have been decided by four points or less.
Some people like to call this kind of thing "luck." I say that's the wrong word. "Luck" implies there's no connection between performance and result. Winning the lottery is luck. Winning close games is something else entirely. For instance:
If I pointed at a coach who won his opening-round NCAA tournament game in overtime, won the next game by just three points, won again in OT in the Final Four, and then prevailed in the national championship game by just seven points, some people will inevitably term that coach "lucky." And, sure, maybe this coach did have some bounces go his way in that particular run. But if I told you "this coach" was John Wooden and that the run I'm describing was his last national championship at UCLA in 1975, maybe we're onto something. All coaches will catch a good break on occasion, but good coaches will maximize their team's chances of translating a good break into a win.
Here's how one coach has explained these breaks of the game, as he reflected on his team's 2008-09 season:
All six of our losses were decided by nine points or less, and that got me dreaming about what we could accomplish if we were better on just two additional possessions per half. However, the flip side of that same equation was very humbling. We won 13 games by nine points or less, which means if we'd been just four possessions worse per game, we would have ended up with a 13-19 record. There's a fine line between a championship season and a mediocre one.
That's how Brad Stevens put it, in the Foreword to this year's College Basketball Prospectus. In this tournament we've seen the importance of the "fine line" demonstrated repeatedly and indelibly.
Keep in mind that seeing a team sail through the NCAA tournament and win six games with ease is the exception and not the rule. North Carolina in 2009 and Florida in 2007 were able to do so, but we just don't have a team like that this year. Instead we have four teams in Houston that have all navigated at least one very close encounter with elimination.
Connecticut recorded a two-point win over Arizona only after watching a last-second three from the Wildcats' Jamelle Horne rim out. Kentucky needed a game-winning shot from Brandon Knight simply to make it past Princeton in the round of 64. Even otherwise dominant VCU had to survive an overtime period against Florida State.
It's true, of course, that if you play enough close games you're going to lose some. No one knows that better than Stevens. Ask him about the national championship game that Butler came within three inches of winning. (Does that make Mike Krzyzewski "lucky"?) Better yet, ask him about a miserable night in Youngstown, Ohio, eight weeks ago.
Over the long haul a team that wins a lot of close games is not likely to perform as well as a team that wins its games by more comfortable margins. But by the time Saturday's games tip off it will be April, and that means quite simply there is no long haul. Each team in Houston is within roughly 130 possessions of a national title. There are just three games left in the 2010-11 college basketball season, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if all three came down to the final possession. We should be so lucky.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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