INDIANAPOLIS — At his lowest point, his gut still churning from what could have been and from all the empty possessions, his mind still watching the flight of a half-court shot that would have changed his life and the lives of his players forever, Butler coach Brad Stevens spoke for college basketball fans everywhere.
"I think what should be known about this game is that anything can happen in basketball," he said. "The thing I hope comes of this … I’ll use Siena as an example. They were 17-1 in their league, and everyone said they needed to win their conference tournament to make the NCAAs … 17-1 is an unbelievable achievement. Until you go through it and realize every game you play is somebody else’s Super Bowl, then what they achieved is remarkable.
"I hope this brings to light that teams should not have to be perfect to have (this opportunity). They should not be held to that standard, because there are really good basketball teams in and out of the six power conferences."
It might be one of the positives about the NCAA Tournament expanding from 65 to 96 teams, that perhaps now a selection committee won’t measure teams from power leagues with one type of yardstick and everyone else with another.
Maybe with more teams, the process becomes fairer in terms of affording deserving teams from smaller leagues an opportunity they are often denied.
Maybe that’s all wishful thinking.
Maybe expansion won’t help the little guys at all.
One thing is for sure. Butler won’t soon be forgotten.
The Bulldogs did more than their part to change perception nationally the last three weeks. Who knows what a difference it would have made had Gordon Hayward’s half-court attempt at the buzzer gone in and Duke not won 61-59 on Monday night, had Butler players been allowed to make good on a pregame promise and carry the national championship trophy six miles through downtown streets here and deliver it to a packed Hinkle Fieldhouse on campus.
I don’t know if that would have been the coolest sight in college basketball history, but it would have been darn close.
I covered my 15th straight Final Four this week, and none before exists in the same neighborhood for the story line that Butler offered. Never before have I felt such an overwhelming hope from mainstream media that one team would emerge champion. Sure, it helped that Duke was the opponent. It wouldn’t have been as compelling with anyone else.
But if you can’t understand that over those particular 40 minutes, shooting percentages and rebound margins and turnover ratios and all the statistical data that most often define a game’s flow were secondary Monday, then you don’t understand what the story meant.
On a stat sheet, the game might have appeared ordinary, though there was nothing typical about how hard each team played and how well each defended.
In a much bigger and more significant picture, the game was one to be remembered for years and years.
College basketball on its best day is a dirty business. Some programs cheat to incredible degrees. Others merely cut a corner here and there. Many exist somewhere in the middle of stretching rules.
None, n-o-n-e, is without some form of blemish.
But in Butler you have about as close as you will get to a program that does things the right way, a school that knows what it is and doesn’t try to be something it’s not. The tournament needs more teams like that. It absolutely needs more stories like it.
I haven’t had as big an issue with who makes the field in recent years as how it is seeded. I’m convinced the committee spends far too much time on the former and not near enough on what lines to slot teams. In this way, I’m not sure many making the decisions have much of a clue. From lines 4 to 12, the tournament is often seeded at a laughable rate.
Butler made sense as a No. 5 three weeks ago. It also could have been a No. 4, but obviously proved to be much better than either placement. There are other teams out there annually that, if given the opportunity and a seed that allows them a chance, can make such a run.
This doesn’t have to be a once-in-every-several-years journey for some team from a nonpower conference.
"I don’t agree with people who say there aren’t enough good teams," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "With expansion or not, there are more good teams. You go to the Mountain West Conference or the Missouri Valley or Horizon or Colonial, you will find teams that can compete and contend in the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big East. We saw in this tournament."
We saw one heck of a story, one wild ride to one thrilling finish.
It left you breathless Monday, no?
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618.