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Watching the NCAA Championship…

With all due respect to Butler, the NCAA championship was played in the late game on Saturday night when Duke defeated West Virginia, 78-57.  The Blue Devils will dispatch of Butler’s Bulldogs quickly and without mercy when the two teams meet on Monday night.

However, the game will be a great showcase of the kind of underdog everyone seems to love against everyone’s favorite college basketball team to hate.  Coach K and Duke will face a difficult crowd in Indianapolis against the real-world Hoosiers story of Butler.

But, looking back at this Final Four, the thing I will remember will be the match-ups on Saturday night.  There were so many things in those games that reminded of what I love about college basketball and what I hate about what’s become of it.

In the Butler-Michigan State match-up, we had pure basketball played by two well-coached teams.  For the first 30 minutes, the game was full of beautiful offensive plays with defensive brilliance from both teams.  Butler held a slim lead going into the final ten minutes.  But for a game that ended with such a small margin of victory, most viewers would have loved to see clutch shots from both sides down the stretch.  Instead, we saw Butler go dead cold and Michigan State continued to be unable to crack the Bulldog defense.

In the same game, we got the Cinderella/Hoosiers story of Butler, but it is becoming a tired one and I have to say it: the shoe doesn’t fit.  This is not a George Mason.  Butler was ranked in the top 25 throughout the year and ranked in the top 15 for a good chunk of the season.  They earned a five seed, which many thought could have been higher.  Their coming out of the Horizon League probably hurt them in that regard.  Going in to the tournament, the committee decided that they were in the top 20 teams in the nation and were in the top five of candidates to come out of their region and advance to the Final Four.  Not bad in the expectations department. 

On the contrary, George Mason was an 11 seed.  During their run to the 2006 Final Four, the Patriots defeated Michigan State (seeded 6th), North Carolina (3), Wichita State (7) and Connecticut (1).  In contrast, Butler faced teams seeded 12th, 13th, 1st, 2nd and 5th.

If one looks a little deeper, the Bulldogs had a lot of things fall their way on their way to Indianapolis.  They dispatched of UTEP in convincing fashion in Round One.  Then they caught a break by playing 13th seeded Murray State who pulled the upset on Vanderbilt.  In the Sweet Sixteen, the Bulldogs played a Syracuse squad without Arinze Onuaku.  Then they got Michigan State with no Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten’s player of the year.

That brings me to one of the things I hate about this year’s Final Four: too few of these teams played quality opponents in the tournament to get here.  We already broke down Butler’s path.  Duke had the easiest bracket by the estimation of most analysts.  The highest seeded team Michigan State played in the tourney was Maryland, a four seed.  At least West Virginia beat a number one seed (Kentucky) and lost to another when they fell to Duke on Saturday.

While the WVU-Duke game wasn’t as competitive of a match-up as Butler-MSU, several things caught my eye.  First and foremost was the focus and determination of the Duke team.  The three S’s: Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and John Scheyer showed what upperclassmen leading your squad from the outside can do for a team in the tournament.  The three combined for 63 of the 78 points scored by the Blue Devils.  Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas were an inside presence with determination and heart, playing defense and rebounding like their careers depended on it.  As I wrote about earlier in the tournament (see HERE), Coach K has taken Duke away from the one-and-done philosophy of many college programs and gone back to what worked: developing talent for the long haul, regardless of how the players are rated while being recruited.

Going back to Singler, Scheyer and Smith, it was a pleasure watching three players work together and play unselfish basketball.  The three also combined to dish out 17 assists, more than the entire West Virginia team (11).  They knew how to play the game, were prepared by a brilliant coach and executed the game plan they knew would bring them a win.  They played smart and handled the ball well.  Smith and Scheyer, the team’s two primary ball-handlers had zero turnovers and Singler committed just three miscues (Duke only had a total of five).

But perhaps the most touching moment of this game came from the West Virginia side of things.  With nine minutes remaining in the game and West Virginia fighting for their championship lives, the Mountaineers senior and second team All-American, Da’Sean Butler went down with a gruesome knee injury.  Writhing in pain on the floor, it was clear Butler would not return to the game.  After being tended to by trainers, Butler was clearly injured physically but even more so mentally and emotionally. 

Enter Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins. 

Huggy Bear came onto the court during the break in action as the trainer tried to adjust Butler’s knee.  Suddenly, the senior was in more agony, all but confirming that his game, season and college career may be ending in that moment.  Tears began to flow freely from Butler’s eyes and Huggins reacted by laying on top of Butler, consoling him.  Words were shared between the two and at one point viewers could clearly see Butler say “I’m sorry” to the Huggy Bear.  In post game press conferences, the two relayed part of what was said.  Huggins told Butler, “Not to worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”  Butler replied, “It hurts right now, but if I can get back out there, then I’ll get back out there.”

The scene ended with both faces showing depths emotion not normally on display in professional or collegiate athletics.  It was touching to see Huggins in that light, his gruff exterior usually the dominant trait that shines through.  Butler meant a lot to this program since Huggins arrived at West Virginia and the two share a special bond that the general public does not usually see on display between player and coach.  I wish more moments like this happened and were captured on live television.  After watching it several times on highlight packages the day after, tears came to my eyes.  Let’s hope this isn’t the end of the road for Butler and that his basketball skills are on display in the NBA next year.

Duke went on to win the game going away, with WVU not able to recover from the deep deficit they found themselves in without their star, which leads to the game on Monday between Duke and Butler. 

On Saturday night, CNBC reported that the Duke basketball program spent more money in their program per player, on average, than the Butler program spent all year on the program as a whole.  Duke comes from Dick Vitale’s beloved ACC, while Butler hails from a conference most have never heard of: the Horizon League.  But for all the things that are different about these two programs, it’s the things that are the same that make me want to watch it.

Both teams are dominated by players that, as I stated earlier, want to win a title.  For Duke, Scheyer, Zoubek and Thomas are seniors; Smith and Singler are juniors.  For Butler, their two best players are sophomores (Hayward and Shelvin Mack), Matt Howard is a junior; and Willie Veasley is a senior.  The Dukies seem like they are committed to the championship path because most of their stars will not have success at the next level and a title would mean the most to them in their basketball careers.  Butler has the aura of a team on the outside that has been banging on the walls to be let in and finally has that opportunity.  A title for them would kick the door in for the Gonzagas, George Masons and Valparaisos of the world, doing what those schools could not.

However, as stated earlier, I feel Butler is overmatched and that Duke is hitting their stride at the perfect time.  They looked so sharp on Saturday that I think the title is inevitable.  The drama on Monday will be thick with depth, however, as the Hoosiers story comes full circle against widely disliked Duke.  But I think this story ends with Coach K cutting down the nets and Butler driving the six miles back to campus from Lucas Oil Stadium.

PREDICTION: Duke 75, Butler 53

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Filed under ACC, Basketball, Butler University, College Basketball, Duke University, Final Four, Horizon League, NCAA Tournament

Watching the play-in game of the NCAA tournament…

Workflow is down, Dick Vitale’s blood pressure is up and just about everybody is filling out brackets this week in preparation for the NCAA tournament, which kicks off with the infamous play-in game between Winthrop and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

ARPB is making their first ever tournament appearance this year and therein lies the problem.  The selection committee never should have put them in the play-in game out of respect for the tournament and giving this school their first true experience at The Big Dance.

Tonight’s game will be played in Dayton, Ohio at the University of Dayton Arena, not at an NCAA tournament site.  The winner will advance to have the distinct pleasure of losing to Duke University in Jacksonville, Florida on Thursday. 

Winthrop has a deep tournament history, shocking college basketball two years ago as an 11-seed when they defeated sixth seeded Notre Dame in a 74-64 upset. 

Now, both these teams are fairly even and ARPB certainly has as good a chance as any to take down the Eagles of Winthrop and move on to actual tournament play in Jacksonville, but putting them in a situation where they would be denied that opportunity is something the selection committee should be ashamed of.

For their first time in the dance, the Golden Lions should be at an actual tournament site, getting schmoozed and treated like NCAA darlings, the cinderella of the South region and the Jacksonville site.  They should be exalted as the team that gets first shot at mighty Duke and be asked “what if” questions for the day leading up to the tournament.

“What if the #16 seed can take out a #1 for the first time?”

“What if Duke really is the weakest #1 seed and maybe the Golden Lions will be in the right place at the right time?”

“What exactly is a Golden Lion?  Aren’t all lions kind of golden?”

The ARPB story is actually a fantastic and inspirational one.  The Lions started the season by losing eleven straight games.  They finally broke into the win column on January 4th, their first game of the new year.  On that day, they squeaked by Mississippi Valley State University in a 69-68 overtime win.  Two days later, they beat Alabama A&M before losing their 12th game out of 14 on January 11th to Alabama State.

But the most significant thing about the first 14 games on the Golden Lions’ schedule was not the 12 losses.  It was the fact that all fourteen were played on the road, away from the cozy confines of H.O. Clemmons Arena in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where the team plays its home games.

Imagine having a basketball team on campus that begins a season in earlier November, but never plays at home until three and a half months later in mid-January?  Talk about road warriors.

After starting 0-12, ARPB won five of six and then finished season by winning 11 of 12, including the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in the final against Texas Southern last Saturday.

Their story as road warriors takes on new meaning when considering the schedule they played, traveling to NCAA tournament teams Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, UTEP and Georgia Tech.  ARPB also played big time programs like Michigan, Oregon, Arizona State and Colorado.  Why was everyone so afraid to play at Clemmons Arena?  Is ARPB really that big of a giant killer, having never played in the NCAA tournament?

The Golden Lions finished the season having played a whopping 20 of their 29 games on the road.  Having just nine home dates would have to be debilitating to any fledgling program.  Too bad for the people of Pine Bluff.  They were denied plenty of good basketball from a NCAA tournament qualifier.

Nothing against Winthrop or any other team in the tournament, but why couldn’t the other three 16-seeds be in the play-in game over first time dancer ARPB?  East Tennessee State (8 appearances), Lehigh (3) and Vermont (3) surely wouldn’t mind giving the Golden Lions a true NCAA tournament experience.

The real problem with this unfortunate situation lies with the decision the NCAA made a few years ago to go to 65 teams just to get in one last bubble team.  The bi-product ended up being that team 65, the loser of the play-in game, doesn’t really go to the tournament at all.

The SWAC should proud to cheer on their representative tonight and hopefully the rest of America is behind those Golden Lions.  I know I will be.

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