Brad Stevens and Butler have reached the NCAA Championship Game the second straight year, and this time, it'll be UConn standing between the Bulldogs and a title. But this year's run feels different.
At their best, sports captures our imagination like a good movie. Last year's Butler team did that as well as anyone. There was Gordon Hayward starring, Brad Stevens scheming on the sidelines, and a whole country cheering them on against Duke's evil empire. When Hayward's halfcourt three rimmed out, it literally felt like the end of a sports movie.
They didn't win, but they're still winners.
This year, it's less romantic. Butler's still the underdog Monday night, but the charm's worn off. Maybe it's because Virginia Commonwealth emerged as an even bigger surprise in 2011. Maybe it's because there's no Gordon Hayward this year, to make us all wistful for the 1950s. Or maybe it's just because no team can really be called an underdog if they make two straight final fours. Clearly, something they do makes them really, really hard to play in March.
They may not have the talent of some opponents, but their style of play makes them a tough matchup for anyone. When that happens one year, it's a cool Cinderella story. Two years in a row? It's not an accident that they've gotten this far. Turns out, playing boring, ball control basketball can be pretty lucrative against a weak field in March. It's just not as fun to watch.
Butler's tourney run and Monday night's NCAA final both have the same problem: it's not quite as exciting as it sounds. Like, wouldn't Monday's game be more fun if it were VCU or Kansas playing UConn, and not Butler? If it were UConn and KU, it'd be Kemba vs. the powerhouse. If it were UConn and VCU, it'd be VCU trying to shock the world. Instead, it's kinda-sorta powerhouse UConn vs. Butler, the kinda-sorta underdog that just wouldn't go away.
Think of it like this—Gordon Hayward was the player who embodied the way we remember basketball from the 1950s. He was Jimmy Chitwood in real-life. Other players had more talent, more athleticism, and bigger reputations, but Hayward was just better. With fundamentals, dead-eye shooting, and a cold-blooded approach to crunch time, he made bigger names look inferior, and made the rest of us nostalgic for some bygone era where everyone looked like Gordon Hayward.
But where Hayward is how we like to remember the 1950s, Matt Howard is how 1950s basketball actually was. A lot of up-and-under shots clanking off the rim, tough defense, good free throw shooting, an endless highlight reel of rebounds and hard-fought lay-ups... GET EXCITED, AMIRITE?
Don't get me wrong; there's virtue to the way Matt Howard and Butler play the game. It's just not the sort of virtue we want to see in prime time, at the center of the biggest spectacle college basketball has to offer. And where last year's run was refreshing, this year, Butler's dominance has become harder to swallow. Like, is this the future of college hoops?
People talk about Butler's success like it's some shared epiphany for college basketball; something we should all be excited about. You know, this rag tag group of winners, shakin' up the hierarchy! For instance, here's how the New York Times described the Bulldogs:
But it is not just another story; the thought of Butler’s winning the national title surely raises goose bumps across the country. ... With its back-to-back runs to the national title game, Butler has evolved from a darling to a juggernaut, turning the improbable to the conventional.
Oh, so conventional. So conventional, you'd almost want to skip the first 38 minutes of any Butler game. Painfully conventional. Narcoleptically conventional! And that's not even a word.
But you get the point.
Where the Times marvels at Butler's "every-possession-is-a-jewel judiciousness" it's quite alright if you want roll your eyes, or just fall asleep. Butler's good at what they do; slow the game down, play good defense, take care of the ball, etc. But what they do is SO INCREDIBLY BORING.
Brad Stevens is an outstanding coach, and he's got a story to match his ascent that makes it all even sweeter. He left a corporate salary at Eli Lily, a big time pharmaceutical corporation, to take an unpaid position as a Butler assistant. The story behind it is definitely worth checking out:
Stevens’s responsibilities at Eli Lilly included distilling information from sales to help determine compensation for pharmaceutical representatives and to suggest whether the company should sell certain medicines to certain insurance companies or hospitals.
“I think it’s the volumes and types of information you need to synthesize that can be very challenging,” Chris Fletchall, a senior adviser of ethics and compliance at Eli Lilly, said in a telephone interview. “Brad was a very bright guy. He was very good with analytics and numbers and coming up with proposals and plans.”
Since his career-change, Stevens has used a lot of what made him successful in the corporate world to propel Butler to the forefront of college hoops. He's proven that by paying attention to advanced statistics, being flexible with strategy, and mastering clock management in late-game situations, you can beat a lot of teams with more talent. Go figure. It fits well into my larger theory, tentatively titled, "Most Coaches Aren't That Smart."
But just because Brad Stevens is a story we can all love doesn't mean we have to love Butler, too. There's no magic to what they've accomplished this year or last. They're just smarter.
Imagine college basketball was one of those shooting contests with different hotspots set up around the court. You get five points for three-pointer, four points for an 18-foot jumper from the corner, three points for a 15-footer from the wing, two points for a foul-shoot, and one point for a lay-up. You have sixty seconds to shoot.
You have players that will spend the entire sixty seconds shooting threes. You have players that alternate between every shot depending on where the rebounds go. You have players that begin with a lay-up, and work their way out to three point line. And then you have Butler and Brad Stevens, who sees that if you just shoot as many lay-ups as possible in sixty seconds, you'll probably have the best chance to win.
It's a great strategy; kind of like slowing down the game as much as possible and milking every shot clock, knowing that if you do, the most efficient team will win in the end. It's a statistically sound approach.
At their best, sports captures our imagination like a good movie. Like Kemba Walker taking over for UConn. Whether the Huskies win or lose Monday night, what he's done in the past month is something college hoops fans will remember forever. When they replay the 2011 Big East Tournament on ESPN Classic, we'll still love it. Like a great old movie that brings back good memories.
When they replay Butler's 2011 NCAA Tournament run, will you watch their victories over Wisconsin and VCU? Will you watch to see Florida completely collapse? Like, really... What's been memorable about Butler, besides their boring, methodical attack in every game?
It's not Brad Stevens' fault. He's just doing his job, and the past two years, he's done it better than just about any coach in America. And it's not Butler's fault that they were more fun to watch last year, when they felt like a real underdog. But if we're talking about college basketball and how we'd like to remember 2011, I'd much rather relive "The Year of Kemba" ten years from now. At least UConn's story has a compelling lead.
By contrast, Butler's the team that lacks sex appeal, plays by the numbers, and after two hours, leaves you asking: Wait a second, why did I just waste two hours of my life watching that?
"But hey! Did you know they played in the same gym where they filmed Hoosiers?"
Yeah, we learned that last year. It was a great run. The sequel? Eh...