Houston Butler coach Brad Stevens loves an underdog, whether it’s his team back in the Final Four or Connecticut making an unprecedented five-games-in-five-nights run through the Big East tournament.
A Big East team as an underdog? The coach at tiny Butler cheering for big, bad UConn?
Welcome to the bizarro world of college basketball in 2011 — a sport where not only is anything possible, but where nothing quite makes sense. A sport in which the story of a small school from a small conference making a run to a title is no more rare than that of the late-season magic conjured by a power program with one of the nation’s best players.
Butler and Connecticut will meet today in the national title game — the eighth-seeded Bulldogs trying to finish the deal after coming oh-so-close last season and the third-seeded Huskies (31-9), led by Kemba Walker, talking about shocking the world with their 11th straight victory after a regular season that foreshadowed none of this.
“We were all rooting for UConn because it was a great story,” Stevens said, “a lot of fun to follow.”
As is Butler, the team from a 4,500-student campus in Indianapolis that practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse, used as the backdrop for the classic movie “Hoosiers” — the based-on-reality melodrama in which tiny Hickory High stares down the biggest schools in Indiana and wins the state championship. On its second try.
What seemed impossible in that movie is becoming more the norm, at least in the college game. Last season, Butler (28-9) came one desperation heave from toppling Duke to become the first true mid-major to win the championship. This season, Butler wasn’t even the biggest longshot at the Final Four. That was VCU, an 11th seed that fell to the Bulldogs in Saturday’s semifinal.
As recently as 2008, the NCAA tournament landed all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, there wasn’t a single 1 or 2 for the first time in the 33-year history of seeding.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said this has been the natural progression since the NCAA started limiting scholarships and new NBA rules triggered a flood of players who would come to college for one year, then declare for the draft.
“It’s as close to parity as there can be,” Calhoun said. “It certainly can occur in a tournament a lot more than it could playing a Saturday night, then Big Monday. It’s just the nature of things. ... The one-and-done thing, walking the tightrope is a hard thing, a very difficult thing.”
If anyone can say they’ve mastered it this season, it’s UConn. Led by Walker, the junior guard on the verge of becoming the best player to ever put on a Huskies uniform, Connecticut won five games in five nights against Big East competition to win the postseason tournament.
A remarkable accomplishment in any conference, but especially the Big East — the 16-team behemoth that placed a record 11 teams in the tournament this year. Maybe because of the grueling nature of its regular season, the Big East wore down and had a terrible showing, only moving two teams into the second weekend.
But Connecticut is still standing, a testament to Walker’s playmaking ability (he’s averaging 25.5 points during this 10-game winning streak) and Calhoun’s ability to adjust on the fly to the fatigue that has predictably set in.
“Our code has been very simple: ’The hell with it, let’s just go play basketball,”’ Calhoun said. “Well, we wouldn’t be doing all the things we did last night defensively to Kentucky if we just kind of rolled the thing out there. We worked very hard on it. But we worked on it in a different way.”
Connecticut advanced to the final by holding the Wildcats to 33.9 percent shooting in a 56-55 victory Saturday night.
Butler, meanwhile, only needed two wins in four nights to capture the tournament title in the less-heralded Horizon League. Still, the Bulldogs are on a 14-game winning streak that began after losing their third straight back on Feb. 3. At that point, this was a team that had no guarantees it would even make the NCAA field. It looked nothing like the one that captured hearts as it made its run through last year’s tournament.
In the final last April, Butler trailed Duke 61-59 with 3.6 seconds left when Gordon Hayward (now playing for Utah in the NBA) grabbed the rebound off an intentionally missed free throw, dribbled four times to the halfcourt line and launched a shot at the buzzer. It hit the backboard, the inside of the rim and bounced out. It could have been the greatest finish ever in sports. It wound up as something less, though Stevens insists he walked away that night feeling like a winner.
“Our guys played as well as they could have,” Stevens said. “They represented themselves in an unbelievable manner throughout that whole game. That might be the reason why we had parades, too, even though we lost. It was remarkable the way people treated us even though we lost.”
One win away from the pinnacle once again, the Bulldogs are talking about finishing the deal this time. They haven’t turned their backs on the heart-tugging story lines that help define them, but they don’t fall back on them, either.
“There are some connections to us and ’Hoosiers.’ I understand that, and that’s nice if people want to make those connections,” senior forward Matt Howard said.
Calhoun, trying to become only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles, says he appreciates Butler as much as the next guy. He sees the slow, steady improvement of mid-majors such as Butler and figures there will be more tournaments like this one and more nights like tonight — where the small school and the big school are on even footing.
Maybe one of those days, the little guy will win it all.
“I think it’s good for college basketball,” Calhoun said. “I think if it starts around 2012, 2013, it would be a wonderful thing.”