The past two NCAA tournaments have put college basketball fans in the unusual position of having to weigh competing miracles. What's more astonishing? That four years after George Mason showed mid majors the way to the Final Four, a Horizon League team did the Patriots one better and made it all the way to the national championship game? That this same Horizon team did the same exact thing the very next year? That a fourth-place CAA team made it to the Final Four? Or that a ninth-place Big East team may win the 2011 national title?
Things were a lot easier, analytically speaking, back in 2008 when all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. That seems like a very long time ago. Nevertheless, I'll take a shot at naming the most improbable event of all. I nominate this year's Butler Bulldogs, and their remarkable run to a second consecutive national championship game.
You have heard and will continue to hear a lot about how Butler and Brad Stevens have a proven way of doing things. It is said that the Bulldogs are fundamentally sound and well-coached. They never beat themselves. They play tremendous defense, and keep every game close.
There's a lot of truth in this description, certainly. (For one thing this team undoubtedly plays a ton of close games.) But if it were really as simple as that then this year's tournament run shouldn't really be all that surprising, should it? We should have known going in to the round of 64 that Butler would play lights-out D, shut down every opposing offense, and therefore stand a very good chance of getting to Houston.
The problem here is that this description of Butler applies to last year's team. Indeed, I think maybe we were all a little more surprised by Stevens' team in 2010 than we should have been. Any way you care to measure dominance, that group was a dominant team, one that ran the table in the Horizon League and outscored its conference by 0.20 points per possession. We know now that Gordon Hayward was an NBA lottery pick in the making -- and any team with Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard is clearly a group to be reckoned with. The Duke Blue Devils won a national championship last April because they were able to scratch out 61 points in 61 possessions against this defense. No other Butler opponent in the 2010 tournament came close to scoring a point per trip.
This year, on the other hand, something much more interesting -- and perhaps less predictable -- has happened. Sometimes, as for instance against Wisconsin or Virginia Commonwealth, the Bulldogs' defense really has been as good as people say it is. But other times, particularly against Pitt or Florida, this D has been downright permissive. Jamie Dixon's team scored 70 points in just 60 possessions against BU, while the Gators also cleared the point-per-trip barrier with ease. Butler's 2011 defense is pretty good, mind you, but it's a far cry from last year's. Stevens' team has played 313 possessions in this year's tournament, and their five opponents have combined to score 315 points. And yet here they are again, 40 minutes away from a national title.
Give the credit to an offense that's playing much better than it did in last year's NCAA tournament. Butler's two stars, Mack and Howard, have combined to make 57 percent of their two-point attempts in this five-game tournament run. Mack additionally has connected on 41 percent of his threes during that time. And while Howard has struggled to find the range from outside the past two weeks, he has excelled at getting to the free throw line and has shot 83 percent once he's there. (Even that impressive figure requires a slight revision upward. Howard deliberately missed a free throw in the closing seconds of the game against Pitt.) On Monday night when you hear this team being praised for its tenacious defense, smile knowingly. The truth is the Bulldogs' offense got them here.
Butler was not a particularly strong team this season (Cleveland State was a hair better in per-possession terms in Horizon League play), but somehow, within a remarkably short period of time, they've been able to do something that usually only the very strongest teams can do. The Bulldogs have created an expectation in the minds of their opponents that there's simply no way the game is going to get away from Stevens and his team. Not that Butler's sure to win, of course. Duke proved otherwise, and, anyway, a bounce here and a tip-in there, and the Bulldogs aren't in Houston today. But it is true that starting with BU's game against UTEP in last year's round of 64, the pattern is clear. After 11 games and 685 possessions of basketball, we are yet to find the team that can cruise past Butler with ease in an NCAA tournament game.
Maybe that team is the Connecticut Huskies. We're about to find out. Nevertheless, for a program out of the Horizon League to instill this kind of trepidation in the hearts and minds of major-conference opponents -- the higher-seeded the better -- is unprecedented, unfathomable, and unparalleled. Just don't try to tell me it's because mid-majors are more "experienced" than the major-conference powers that have to put up with all those disruptive departures by all those one-and-done stars. If experience were all that's required here, St. John's would be marching to the national title with ease right now.
The Bulldogs don't lack for experience, but they've added something far more rare: a sense of inevitability. If it's an NCAA tournament game, then, inevitably, Butler will be right there at the end. And if you ask me how, exactly, they're able to do this, all I can do is point. With the possible exception of defensive rebounding, Brad Stevens' team isn't doing any one facet of the game consistently well in the NCAA tournament. That is, except for winning basketball games. In a tournament where miracles have been plentiful, I haven't seen anything quite so miraculous.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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