Game Time: Mark Down "April 6," Because I'm About To Talk Nice About Duke

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With 7:10 left in last night's men's college basketball championship game, Duke senior guard Jon Scheyer hit two free throws to put the Duke Blue Devils up 56-51. I turned to the person next to me at the establishment where I was watching this instant classic unfold and said, "Well, go ahead and mark it down, we know at the very least Butler is giving up 60 tonight."  Hell, with SEVEN minutes to go, Duke only needed FOUR more points.

Why was the number 60 significant? Well, much had been made about how stingy the Bulldogs' defense had been throughout this year's tournament, not allowing 60 points to any of their previous five opponents, a list that included heavyweights like Syracuse, Kansas State, and a solid welterweight in the semifinals in Michigan State.

Well, they ended up giving up 60 points last night to Duke, but the foregone conclusion that surrendering more than 60 was at the 7:10 mark became a coin flipper with 3.6 seconds left in the game and Duke clinging to a 60-59 lead. Yeah, Duke got their 60. Barely. They got 61, to be exact. And, figuratively at least, they "needed all of them" as they managed to be the
last team standing in a 61-59 slugfest last night in Indianapolis that in the last seven minutes bore more resemblance to rounds fourteen and fifteen of the first Rocky movie than the last ten minutes of Hoosiers, including one final attempted haymaker from Butler's do-everything
uber-forward Gordon Hayward that bounced off the glass and the rim to keep Butler two points away from knocking out Apollo Creed.

You see, if it were Hoosiers, one of Hayward's final two looks -- the first a baseline fadeaway that caught back iron and the second his last-ditch heave from halfcourt -- goes in. Instead, Butler is left grasping for air, with no trophy or belt to raise over their head, but with the respect of a nation of basketball fans who hopefully now realize that the Bulldogs are no Cinderella story; Butler is a really good basketball program, and have been for a while now.

With all of that said, I was as guilty as anybody of underestimating just how systematically the Bulldogs would execute their gameplan against Duke. I thought that they would hang around for a while, but that eventually the Blue Devils would go on one of their patented "Scheyer for three, Singler for three, Nolan Smith off glass" 8-0 runs, put some daylight between the two teams, and that would be it.

I was so wrong.

To think that Duke was going to run away with this one, as it turned out, was to ignore the moxie that a team develops winning 25 in a row, regardless of competition level.

To think that Duke was going to run away with this one was to ignore just how good Butler coach Brad Stevens is at preaching the strategic (the "Butler Way") and executing the tactical.

The perfect example? A little past the midway point of the first half, Butler had weathered some early poor shooting on their part (making only two of their first 11 shots) to actually take a 20-18 lead. At that point, Duke responded with an 8-0 run, capped by a Scheyer three and a Singler layup to give Duke a 26-20 lead.

Timeout, Butler.

I'm telling you, if Stevens doesn't call timeout there, it's a mortal lock that Butler rushes a shot, misses, and then Nolan Smith comes down and drains a three on Duke's next trip to make it 29-20 Duke. Instead, Stevens calls time out, gathers his team, and Butler answers with a 7-0 run of his own.

Crisis averted. Fight back on. As it turns out, that six-point lead Duke held at 26-20 would be their biggest lead of the night.

Even with Duke clinging to a 33-32 halftime lead, we all kept waiting for the Blue Devils to come inside with a right-left combo and then drop Butler with a Scheyer or Singler knockout blow sometime in the second half. It never happened. Duke could never put Butler away. The two teams traded leads early in the second half. With 13:35 to go in the game, Butler point
guard Ronald Nored hit a three-pointer to put Butler up 43-42 in what would turn out to be the last time Butler would lead in the game.

If you're looking for a point where this game ceased being a basketball game and instead morphed into a prize fight, put a check mark next to the 9:30 remaining mark. Butler's Shelvin Mack hit a jumper to make it 51-49 Duke. From here on out, the two teams would combine for four field goals, two for each team. (Ironically, Butler's only two field goals the rest of the way would come from junior forward Matt Howard, who did his best to single-handedly keep the "mid-major" label on the Bulldogs this tournament as he went from double-digit scorer in Horizon League play to completely lost on both ends of the floor by the time the Final Four rolled around.)

On paper, the game played very much like Butler's ugly semifinal win against Michigan State, only this time the Bulldogs were on the short end, surviving trip to trip down the floor for the final ten minutes against a superior opponent, hoping that the favored Blue Devils would give them an opening to steal glory and get the hell out of there.

With two minutes left, Duke gave Butler the opening. Down 60-55, the Bulldogs converted a Singler turnover, a Smith miss, and a Singler miss into a 60-59 deficit and possession of the ball with the shot clock off.

Butler's second-to-last ditch effort to take the lead came down to Gordon Hayward's shooting a baseline jumper over the outstretched arms of Duke center Brian Zoubek, with Zoubek forcing Hayward into a difficult shot and then gathering the subsequent rebound before knocking down an important free throw with 3.6 seconds left. The sequence was appropriate on so many levels, with Butler putting the ball in the hands of the guy who had carried them
this far, and Duke getting one of those "doing the little things" plays from a guy in Zoubek who had gone from afterthought early in the season to difference-maker by season's end.

In an effort that was equal parts hustle, newfound confidence, and simply being the biggest guy on the floor, Zoubek gathered another ten rebounds, finished around the rim, kicked out to open shooters, and was a general pain in the ass for anyone wearing a Butler uniform. The fact that the people voting on the All-Tournament team didn't grasp how important Zoubek's eleven -- ELEVEN -- offensive rebounds in the Final Four were is criminal.

After the game was over, commentators on television, experts on Twitter, people watching in bars were all quick to put the "greatest ever" tag on this game. I always like to sleep on it and, you know, actually THINK about it  before I do that. In the end, the benchmark for me for great title games will always be, and still is, Villanova versus Georgetown in 1985, for many reasons -- the main ones being (a) the hatred that Georgetown team faced in the mid-`80's was so much more real and ugly than the brand this Duke team faces and (b) Cinderella lived happily ever after in that game. (Well, at least until we found out point guard Gary McLain was playing the Final Four coked up, but you get my drift.)

If Hayward's desperation shot goes in, is that the greatest finals game ever played? Maybe. I will say this -- if we have to attach "greatest" to something in this game (and it feels like in 2010 we always do), then I will call this season Coach K's greatest coaching job.

When you go back and look at his previous championship teams, they were dotted with players who were transcendent college players, NBA lottery picks, solid pro's, and/or Dream Teamers:

1991: Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley
1992: Laettner, Hill, Hurley
2001: Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon

His other recent teams to make deep runs in the tournament were similarly talented (or in the case of the 1999 team that lost to UConn in the finals, even MORE talented, with Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, William Avery, and Trajan Langdon). But this team, in terms of NBA talent, is built around a couple of marginal NBA prospects in Singler and Smith and a guy who is your classic "good college player" in Scheyer. Hell, at 7-foot-1, Zoubek will have the longest NBA career of anybody on this Duke team. Mark it down.

Look at what Coach K's peers with number-one seeds all did in this tournament:

- KANSAS with potential 2010 lottery picks (Aldrich and Henry), out in the second round
- SYRACUSE with top-five pick Wes Johnson, out in the Sweet 16
- KENTUCKY with a stranglehold on virtually the whole first round of this summer's NBA draft (Wall, Cousins, Patterson, Bledsoe, Orton), out in the Elite Eight

Also, I contend that if you had an NBA Draft consisting of just players from Duke and their opponents in this tournament, the Big Board would look like this:

1. Da'Sean Butler, WVU (before his knee injury)
2. Devin Ebanks, WVU
3. Ekpe Udoh. Baylor
4. Gordon Hayward, Butler
5. LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor
6. Kyle Singler, Duke
7. Nolan Smith, Duke

Just to be clear, I'm not crying the blues for Duke. The cupboard was far from bare if you're trying to win a college basketball tournament, but my point is Coach K deserves credit for maximizing the potential of this group and having them playing their best basketball when it mattered most, and doing so against varied styles (from the frenetic pace Baylor likes to play
to the grind-it-out, low-possession count style of Butler).

As much as I like to call a rat a rat, Mike Krzyzewski is a great college basketball coach.

One final note about Butler. Earlier I called them a really good basketball program. I used the word "program" for a reason. To call them a really good basketball team, while accurate, doesn't do them justice. To use the word "team" implies that it's just this 2010 group that represents Butler's place on the college basketball map. It would ignore the fact that Butler has been good for some time now. This is not George Mason in 2006, a good team that popped up in the Final Four, promptly got whacked by Florida, and then disappeared back into mid-major anonymity.

Butler's two best players, Hayward and Mack, played for Jamie Dixon in the U-19 World Championships. Mack was the captain of that team, and Hayward was one of their best players. Both are sophomores. Their point guard, Ronald Nored, is also a sophomore. Matt Howard, for all his struggles in this tournament, is a junior. Barring Stevens leaving for another gig and/or Hayward opting to go pro, Butler will be a MAJOR factor again in 2011, and a preseason top 5 team.

If you're a fan of college basketball programs, if you cringe at the "one and done's," then you were the winner last night, and frankly you've been winning for the last three weeks. Salute Duke, respect Butler, and know that both may be back doing it all over again next year.

And you know what, Duke? I'm ok with that. Just know that this is as good as it's gonna get between me and you.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.

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