Tracy Stevens was sitting in her hotel room late Saturday, just waiting for her husband to return so she could tell him goodnight before taking the kids home. They still have bedtimes, you know, even in these unusual times for the Stevens family, Butler University and college basketball, in general.
"She was just kind of staring at the wall when I walked in," said Brad Stevens, otherwise known as Tracy's husband, Kinsley's and Brady's father, and Butler's basketball coach. "Then she kind of stared at me like, 'You guys are playing for the national championship.' "
Brad thought about this for a second.
He tried to let it soak in.
That's what his friends are telling him to do.
But like any coach, he quickly snapped back to reality.
"Yeah," Brad said. "But we're playing Duke."
Absolutely, Butler is playing Duke. At Lucas Oil Stadium. On CBS. For the national championship.
It becomes more unbelievable each time I type those words, more unbelievable each time I think about how this has unfolded. The same Horizon League school I watched lose to Minnesota and Clemson over Thanksgiving and finish sixth in the 76 Classic is now one win away from a national championship, and the team in Butler's way just so happens to be the most recognizable and important basketball program of the past two decades, a program led by a man who will someday be the sport's winningest coach if he chooses to coach long enough.
Far as championship games go, it doesn't get much better.
Let's do the National Title Game Look Ahead.
The matchup: Duke vs. Butler
Tipoff: 9:21 p.m. ET
Records: Duke 34-5, Butler 33-4
Favorite: Duke (-7)
Only team to beat both teams: Georgetown (beat Duke 89-77 and Butler 72-65)
Neither team was supposed to be here
Preseason AP ranking: Duke No. 9, Butler No. 11
Postseason AP ranking: Duke No. 3, Butler No. 11
This is an unusual title game for a variety of reasons, among them: neither participant was ranked No. 1 during this regular season. Duke never got higher than third. Butler never got higher than 11th. The four schools that spent time at No. 1 this season were Texas, Kansas, Syracuse and Kentucky. They lost in the first round (Texas), second round (KU), Sweet 16 (SU) and Elite Eight (UK). Duke and Butler were third and 12th in the RPI on Selection Sunday.
The differences in the coaches
1. Mike Krzyzewski has been coaching 35 years. Brad Stevens has been alive 33 years.
2. Mike Krzyzewski makes $4 million per year. Brad Stevens makes less than $400,000 per year.
3. Mike Krzyzewski has five grandchildren. Brad Stevens has two children under the age of 5.
4. Mike Krzyzewski has authored eight books. Brad Stevens has read some of them.
"On our way to Italy, I read The Gold Standard, the one he wrote about the Olympic experience," Stevens said Sunday. "As a coach, you're always studying other coaches."
Later Sunday, Krzyzewski was told Stevens read his book.
"I've already put a pre-order in for his book," Krzyzewski joked.
The differences in the prospects
You've probably read that Duke has six McDonald's All-Americans compared to Butler's zero, but that statistic alone doesn't properly capture the gap in recruiting between these two programs. Using Scout.com's ratings, Duke signed 13 prospects rated as four-star or five-star prospects from 2006 to 2009. Butler's best were a couple of three-star prospects (Matt Howard and Andrew Smith). The average recruiting ranking of Duke's five starters is 4.6. The average recruiting ranking of Butler's five starters is 2.2. For next year, Duke has two four-star recruits, one five-star recruit, and a junior college transfer set to enroll. Butler has one three-star recruit and two two-star recruits on the way.
Do you recognize these names?
Gordon Hayward is widely considered the Final Four's best NBA prospect even though (as noted above) he hasn't always been thought of that way. Scout.com had Hayward as a two-star small forward in the Class of 2008. DeMar DeRozan (NBA), Scotty Hopson (Tennessee), Devin Ebanks (West Virginia) and Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest) ranked first, second, third and fourth at that position in that class. Five other players ranked ahead of Hayward at small forward were Drew Wiley (2.2 ppg at Oregon), Ray Willis (2.4 ppg at Oklahoma), James Southerland (3.1 ppg at Syracuse), Gideon Gamble (3.6 ppg at Winthrop), and Dallas Elmore (3.9 ppg at Boston College).
Duke will win if ... Duke plays the way it played against West Virginia. That's the simplest way to put it. The Blue Devils are more talented and more explosive, and they looked better in the national semifinals. If Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler get going -- and if Brian Zoubek gets double-digit rebounds like he did against West Virginia -- Butler won't be able to score enough to keep up. Seventy points will get it done. That should be the goal for Duke. Get to 70 and grab the trophy.
Butler will win if ... Butler keeps Duke in the 60s and figures out a way to control at least two of Duke's big three, because that's the key to beating Duke. Wisconsin let Singler get 28 back in December but limited Scheyer and Smith to a 7-of-24 shooting performance in a 73-69 victory. Butler would be wise to take a similar approach, and the Bulldogs must keep Duke off the offensive glass. That could be difficult if Matt Howard sits out with a concussion, but I suspect he'll at least try to play. If he plays well, Hayward shoots well, and Ronald Nored guards well, the Bulldogs could pull off this upset and conclude one of the greatest runs in NCAA tournament history.
The winner will be ... Butler
Final thought: The reason the general public isn't giving Butler a chance is because people tend to react to what they just saw, and what we just saw is Duke play as well as it could play against West Virginia while Butler looked hopeless on offense against Michigan State. Thus, Duke is the overwhelming favorite. But it should be noted that Duke hardly looked great against Purdue in the Sweet 16 or Baylor in the Elite Eight, and that Butler spent those rounds beating Syracuse and Kansas State. So if Duke can nearly lose to Purdue and Baylor, and Butler can beat Syracuse and Kansas State, is it really insane to think Butler can beat Duke?
Not in this season.
Not in this tournament.
Not in this city with these fans.
Plus, to pick Duke would be to pick against Butler.
And, let's be honest, what fun is it at this point to pick against Butler?