Butler's run to the national championship game in 2010 was inspirational and surprising, though the surprise has been tempered a bit by their repeat run to the title game this year. Last year's was especially entertaining because the Final Four was held in Indianapolis, just a few miles from Butler's campus. The fact that they played in historic Hinkle Field House of "Hoosiers" fame just added to the mystique of Butler's run.
I started this blog on April 1, 2010. On April 3 and 5, Butler played a pair of great NCAA Final Four games that would have definitely deserved consideration if I was updating events in the present tense. Alas, I wasn't, which might turn out to be a good thing. The extra year might give each event some time to find its rightful place in sports history.
Take Butler's semifinal game against Michigan State, a game the Bulldogs held on to win 52-50. When it happened last year, I thought for sure the game itself was an instant classic, deserving of the top spot for April 3. A two-point game to send the ultimate Cinderella team into the title game? How can you beat that? But looking back at it a year later, the game was kind of a dud. Butler only scored one field goal in the final 12 minutes of the game. An injury-ravaged Michigan State team was held without a fast-break point. The normally exciting final two minutes was instead a display of missed shots and missed free throws. Just because it was a two-point game doesn't mean it was exciting. In fact, it was kind of dull, and certainly not worthy of knocking Rumeal Robinson and Michigan out of the top spot for April 3.
But then there was the title game, and more specifically, the shot. Just imagine if Gordon Hayward's half-court heave at the buzzer had gone in. Not only would it have been the greatest sports moment of 2010, it would have been in the running for the greatest NCAA championship moment ever, right along with Lorenzo Charles' dunk and Michael Jordan's shot. Even with the shot missing by an inch, the game was still a classic. You had Duke's steady play, Butler's frenetic comeback, and Hayward, the darling of the tournament, having >two shots to win the national championship. It was a true instant classic.
But now the question. Was it a more important game than the Time Out?
As unfair as it may seem, Chris Webber's career has come to be defined by the Time Out. It was the end of the Fab Five era in college basketball, and probably the most famous technical foul in basketball history. It would take a hell of a game to knock that famous one of the top spot for April 5.
But I think Butler's game was worthy of that. It had the same iconic heartbreaking moment (Hayward's barely missed heave vs. Webber's ill-fated time out), and they were both great games, but I think Duke's title wins out over North Carolina's for two reasons.
First, while Webber's time out sealed the game, there were still a few seconds of anticlimactic filler to get through before the final buzzer. The last few seconds were kind of a buzzkill not deserving of the game. Meanwhile, Butler's literally came down to the buzzer, as the game was still in the balance when the final horn sounded. Big plus there.
Second, Webber's time out has been clouded a bit by the NCAA sanctions that later hit Michigan. Technically, that championship game didn't happen. Michigan's appearance in that game has been vacated. And while we'll always remember it, I think it pales compared to the day Butler almost did it.
INDIANAPOLIS - Imagine for a moment if this shot had gone in:
Imagine it. A halfcourt heave for the National Championship. If that shot had gone in, how many college basketball games ever played would compare to it? A handful at the most? Granted, there have been many close college basketball games that featured a halfcourt heave that would have won the game, but how many of those shots came close? How many even hit the backboard?
Even though Gordon Hayward missed his championship-winning shot by an inch, a legend was born. That heave made sure everybody would remember Butler's run to the 2010 Championship Game, the game that was played five miles from their campus. They made their dream run, got their dream matchup against Duke, and almost beat the college basketball giants.
Duke won the 2010 national championship, but everybody will always remember Butler's run more fondly. They were called a Cinderella team, but at 33-4 entering the game, the Bulldogs were no slouches. They were on a 25-game winning streak when they met up with the Blue Devils, and they showed why, staying close to Duke all game long. Duke probably had more talent, but Butler beat several teams over the course of their tournament run that had more talent. The Bulldogs stayed right with them, right down to the final moments.
And then, imagine poor Gordon Hayward. He had not one, but two shots to win a National Championship. His first one, a fallaway from the baseline that hit the front rim, was actually the better look. His second one, the halfcourt heave, almost made him a legend.
Well, forget almost. It did make him a legend. By coming so close, Hayward and the Bulldogs became the poster children for all the teams that came painfully close to a title, only to have it barely slip away. In Butler's case, it slipped away by less than an inch.
But again ... imagine if he had made that shot...