This is Duke's national championship, but this was Butler's season.
Sometimes it happens that way. What do you remember about the 2006 college basketball season? I bet you remember 11th-seeded George Mason reaching the Final Four. The national champion that season was North Carolina. Or Florida. Might have been Kansas. Not sure, but I'm positive George Mason was in the Final Four, because that was the defining fact of the whole season - George Mason, in the Final Four. Can you believe that?
The 2010 season will be remembered similarly by lots of us outside the Duke fan base headquarters of Durham, N.C., and Hackensack, N.J. Yes,
But Butler won the season.
There are two defining moments of this NCAA tournament: West Virginia coach Bob Huggins draped his body over Da'Sean Butler as the injured Mountaineers star lay prone on the Final Four floor. That's one memory. The other memory is of Butler. What, specifically? Nothing, specifically. Just ... Butler.
Duke had its chance to take not just this national championship, but this memory, from Butler - but Duke failed. Stealing this season would have required dominating Butler on Monday night as Duke had dominated West Virginia on Saturday in the Final Four, dispatching the Bulldogs as an overmatched pretender not worthy of being in this game, much less being in our memory. Instead, Duke hung on by its fingernails to beat the Bulldogs 61-59. Duke's performance Monday night wasn't a tour de force. It was a flurry of final-minute fail.
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Here were Duke's final five possessions in the last three minutes: Lance Thomas turned it over. Kyle Singler slipped to the floor and was called for traveling. Nolan Smith drove to the rim for an easy layup and missed it. Singler shot a 15-foot air ball with 37 seconds left. And then Brian Zoubek hit a free throw with 3.6 seconds remaining.
That's it. Five possessions - the final five possessions of the national championship game. And national champion Duke mustered just one point. And one air ball. One missed bunny. Two turnovers.
That's not winning a national championship. That's finding a national championship. But good for Duke, sincerely. The Blue Devils won with defense and rebounding, overachieving all season as Mike Krzyzewski found a way to win his fourth national title with his least talented championship roster.
Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single Final Four team under Krzyzewski - and this was his 11th - that was less impressive, top to bottom, than this one. But still he found a way to win. That makes this one, as he said afterward, perhaps the most satisfying title for him.
But it doesn't make Duke memorable for the rest of us.
Butler? Now you're talking about a memory. The Bulldogs were playing for the national title in their hometown, but that point has been overrated if not overstated. The story of this tournament wasn't that Butler was in the title game in Indianapolis. The story was that Butler was in the title game ... period. Think about it: Butler? Really?
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That's impossible. Butler isn't just from a non-BCS league, but it's from a non-BCS league outside the clique of accepted non-BCS basketball leagues. Butler isn't from the Missouri Valley or the Colonial. Not Conference USA or the Mountain West or the WAC. Not the Atlantic 10 or even the West Coast Conference, home of Gonzaga.
Butler's from the Horizon League. I bet you couldn't name the other members of the Horizon League, or even how many other members there are (nine others, 10 total - I just looked it up). If you could name half the membership of the Horizon, stop reading this Web site and go to Mensa.com, because you're a friggin' genius.
And Butler made it here, emerging from a league that includes one of the Loyola schools, two sub-members of the Wisconsin state university system and Wright State. Do you know what state is home to Wright State? I do, but only because I live in Ohio. Until I moved there, I had no clue - and when I moved to Ohio, I was writing about college basketball for a living.
From that humble beginning, Butler did something we've never seen. Since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, creating a six-game gauntlet that weeds out the frauds, Butler is the smallest school from the standpoint of enrollment (4,200) to reach the title game. This season belonged to Butler, and frankly, this season needed Butler. Imagine this title game featuring Duke and the other team from that half of the Final Four, 2009 finalist Michigan State. History wouldn't remember this season at all, because until Butler came along it was a season devoid of greatness, much less a great story.
That includes the 2010 NCAA tournament. From a body-of-work standpoint, none of the best three teams of the season - No. 1 seeds Kansas, Kentucky or Syracuse - got to the Final Four. That means Duke, by virtue of being the fourth No. 1 seed, never got the chance to play any of them. That doesn't mean Duke backed into the title, but its South Regional was a joke, and none of the titans of this season were waiting in the Final Four. And so a strange season devoid of overwhelming teams gave us a strange Final Four devoid of the same thing. Duke is the champion, sort of like Carl Yastrzemski was the American League batting champion in 1968. Yastrzemski hit .301 that season. Why was he the batting champ with such a pedestrian average? Because someone had to be.
That's Duke - the 2010 national champion because someone had to be. That's a petty truth, but it's a big compliment to Duke, because it means that in this completely wide-open season, Duke was the toughest, the sturdiest, most resilient, most opportunistic team of all. Duke won the biggest trophy. Maybe, five years from now, you'll remember that.
But I know you'll remember Butler.