Butler has the talent to upset Duke in the NCAA championship game

By John Feinstein
Monday, April 5, 2010; D04


There are a number of people here who have grown tired of the comparisons being drawn between Butler 2010 and Milan 1954 -- the Indiana high school team whose story was made into the stuff of legends by the movie "Hoosiers."

Those people are going to have to deal with it -- at least for one more game, and perhaps forever if Butler can beat Duke in Monday's national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Duke is, without question, the opponent a screenwriter would choose for Butler in this game. The Blue Devils are to college basketball what Muncie Central was to Indiana high school basketball 56 years ago. They are the power team, the one with the superstar coach and the swagger of a team most people will expect to win a fourth national title when they play the Bulldogs.

What's more, the way the two semifinal games played out on Saturday night will give people reason to shake their heads and say that Butler has had a great run that is bound to end against the Blue Devils.

Butler scraped by Michigan State, 52-50, on pure grit. With two starters injured for most of the game's last 10 minutes, the Bulldogs had almost no offense. After a Willie Veasley steal and dunk put Butler ahead 44-37 with 12:18 to play, the Bulldogs made one field goal--a layup by Gordon Hayward with 1:36 to go after Shawn Vanzant had somehow grabbed a Hayward miss and gotten the ball back to him--and scored eight points in all down the stretch.

That was enough, though, because Butler is probably the one team in the tournament that can play half-court defense at Duke's level. A lot of people thought West Virginia was that team before Saturday, but the Blue Devils carved the Mountaineers up almost from the start. They shot better than 50 percent from the field for only the second time in their last 25 games. Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith all shot well on the same night for the first time in memory, combining for 63 of Duke's 78 points in a stunning 78-57 win.

"Usually we get two of the three shooting well," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Tonight we had all three guys shooting well and that's a plus."

West Virginia just showed up on the wrong night, one that more or less ended when Da'Sean Butler hurt his knee on a drive to the basket with a little less than nine minutes left. Duke was already leading 63-48 and a WVU rally looked unlikely, but Butler's injury sealed the deal. After he was taken off in a golf cart, the building was so quiet the rest of the night, you might have thought someone was lining up a key putt at a golf tournament.

It won't be that way on Monday. The Butler fans had the place jumping in Saturday's first game and that will no doubt be the case again during the final. This is a dream matchup: The baby-faced, 6-foot-9 Hayward is Jimmy Chitwood (the fictional version of Milan hero Bobby Plump), Duke is Muncie Central, and you can also cast Butler as Cinderella if you need a fairy tale not based in fact. Krzyzewski, as you might expect, tried to play down the Cinderella/Hoosiers theme. "To me, a Cinderella is a team that loses eight, nine games and then gets on a run in the tournament," he said. "Butler's won 25 games in a row. They beat Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State to get here. They're an outstanding basketball team. I know [that] because Butler hasn't been in a Final Four, people will call them Cinderella. I think they're here because they've earned it."

A Duke win would give Krzyzewski his fourth national championship, tying him with Adolph Rupp for second on the all-time list with only John Wooden's 10 titles ahead of him. A Butler win would inspire several books, a couple of documentaries and "Hoosiers 2." It would also make Brad Stevens the hottest name in coaching--if he isn't already.

Because Duke played so well on Saturday and because Butler struggled to the finish line and has question marks because of the injuries to Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, there was some talk after the second game that the final might be one-sided, much the way last year's final was when North Carolina blew out Michigan State.

But games like that tend to be the exception, not the rule. For one game -- 40 minutes -- anything can happen in college basketball. Rollie Massimino and John Thompson were both in the building Saturday night. They can both attest to that fact when they look back at the Villanova-Georgetown final they coached in 25 years ago. North Carolina State-Houston; Kansas-Oklahoma; Connecticut-Duke -- all finals expected to be one-sided that turned into upsets.

Krzyzewski has been on the underdog side of the coin himself: He won his first national championship right here 19 years ago after his team stunned an undefeated and seemingly unbeatable Nevada-Las Vegas team in the semifinals.

The irony of the story is this: While almost no one expected Butler to still be playing on the last night of the season, there weren't that many people who expected Duke to be playing either. Having not been to a Final Four since 2004, with a team that had only three players who could score with any consistency, Duke was seen by most basketball people as a Sweet 16 team. It was a team that tied for the ACC regular season title with Maryland.

But it has gotten better as the season has gone on and probably played its best game against West Virginia. "We've become a very good team," Krzyzewski said. "And on Monday night, we have a chance to do something great."

The same is clearly true of Butler. The Blue Devils do have a chance to do something great. The Bulldogs have a chance to make history.

For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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