Once upon a time — 10 years ago to be exact — there was college basketball team from Butler. It was a charming bunch, with a dashing young coach named Brad Stevens, a lovable bulldog mascot, and a gaggle of players who weren’t all that familiar with the national spotlight, but also didn’t care about the odds supposedly stacked against them.
Those Bulldogs lost a game at UAB on Dec. 22, 2009, and then the strangest thing happened. They didn’t lose again for ages. Not in January. Not in February. Not in March. Not until mighty Duke put an end to the ride on April 5 in the national championship game in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, but six miles from the Butler campus. By two points. Barely. Since a Butler shot to win at the buzzer clanged off the rim.
By then, of course, the Bulldogs had become coast-to-coast darlings, from a school of barely 4,000, with a mid-major pedigree. And their home gym gave the world the ultimate sports underdog movie, Hoosiers. How more perfect could it get? To this day, when upstarts dream of a March Madness fantasy, they usually evoke the name of Butler. Ten years later, how to mark the occasion when a legend was made? How about talking to four renowned coaches who tried to stop it?
In the 10 years since, Jim Boeheim, Frank Martin, Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski have coached more than a thousand games among, and all have gone to the Final Four. But each and every one remembers the day in 2010 when they lined up against Butler.
Boeheim and Syracuse faced Butler in the Sweet 16 in Salt Lake City. The Orange were 30-4 and seeded No. 1 in the West. Butler was No. 5.
Boeheim: “I knew Brad was a really good coach even before they started making their run, but I didn’t know him. I’ve gotten to know him through USA Basketball and he’s the nicest guy in the world.
“They had a really good, solid team. We didn’t have a guy who played in the NBA as it turned out and they had Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. You didn’t know that at the time, so they were actually a little better than maybe people might have thought. They had a good center. They had really good pieces. I was happy it was a close game, that we had an opportunity to win.
“We lost our center (Arinze Onuaku) on the next to last play of the Big East tournament, so we went out there without our center but we still had a good team.”
Syracuse led by 54-50 with 5:23 left, but went nearly the next five minutes without a point. Butler eased in front, and the big moment came with 1:50 left, when Willie Veasley threw up something of a prayer, and the ball bounced high in the air off the rim, caromed off the backboard, and went in for a 3-pointer, and 58-54 Bulldog lead. “That was a h-o-r-s-e shot,” Veasley said afterward. It ended 63-59. The Bulldogs had gotten away with shooting only 40 percent.
Boeheim: “Their guard, who was shooting something like 16 percent, took a 3 and hit the rim and it went six feet up in the air and came down through the basket. We stopped them, the shot clock was out, and he had to throw one up there and it went in.
“I was not surprised at all by Butler. I wouldn’t have been surprised had they won. I think it was great what they did. What George Mason did, Butler, VCU, Loyola of Chicago, go down the list of teams that were able to get there, I think that’s all good for our game that you can do that. “
Martin’s Kansas State was next in the Elite Eight. The No. 2 seed Wildcats had to survive a two-overtime 101-96 shootout with Xavier to get to the regional championship. Maybe the fatigue had something to do with how they came from 10 points down in the second half to get the lead against Butler, but then faded in the final minutes and lost 63-56. Between Gordon Hayward’s 22 points and a 41-29 rebounding edge, the Bulldogs were magically going home to play in the Final Four.
Martin: “That whole game, I can tell you whatever possession you want to know from it. First of all, they were the most physical team that we played all year. When I was watching them on film, their defensive physicality jumped out at me, and their size. And then they were so efficient as to who they were. I think you see that now with Brad Stevens’ team in the NBA. They played with the fewest amount of mistakes. Fast forward, and they had two guys that were established NBA starters in Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. They were just good, there’s no other way to put it.
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“We make a 3 to go up one, which is our first lead with right under five minutes to go in the game. And they just refused to allow us to win the game. We’re down three and Jacob Pullen — the game before against Xavier, he made the same 3 off the same play in the same spot — and shot it, that thing was down and it just wasn’t meant to be. It came out.
“One regret that I have. As coaches, at least I reflect every day and every year. It’s the only time all year that I didn’t make that team practice (the day before) physical and competitive. And it’s because the game against Xavier the night before had been double overtime, ended after midnight. I took my foot off the pedal in practice and then we played that way the first half of the next game. I thought it took a toll. But that’s no excuse. That would be taking away from Butler’s greatness and their moment.
“Brad and I had never spent time together. We have since that day and I fully understand now why they were so good. As much as that game pained me when it ended, as the years went by and I got to know him, it’s pretty clear to me that we didn’t lose to an inferior team.
“The pains are, you’re so close to going to that platform, we all dream of that moment. And to think that we make a 3 to go up one that late in the game and we weren’t able to close it out, there’s a lot of guys in this business that are a lot better at this than I am who never got that opportunity. So when we did qualify (with South Carolina in 2017), reliving that Butler moment immediately popped in my head. There’s not a second that goes by that I’m not thankful for just how lucky I am, that I was that close against Butler and the I was able to be a part of it some years later.”
Izzo and Michigan State were next, facing the Bulldogs in the Final Four in downtown Indianapolis. Butler was up seven in the second half, but then went nearly 11 minutes without a field goal. The Spartans had a chance for the lead in the final seconds, but Hayward defended Draymond Green into a miss, though Green might or might not have been fouled. Ronald Nored hit two critical free throws for Butler. Until then he was 3-for-12 from the line in the NCAA tournament. The Butler phenomenon moved on to the title game, 52-50. Defense and muscle had gotten the Bulldogs by. They shot only 30.6 percent.
Izzo: “I’ve had two times, one in the Elite Eight and one in the Final Four, that as much as I wanted to win, I got caught up in the storyline. One was when we played Temple to go to the Final Four and I was a big John Chaney fan, and he hadn’t been to one yet. I made the comment after I felt like the guy who shot Bambi. And then against Butler, I got caught up in realizing this was Cinderella at that time, and I had been Cinderella before. And Cinderella in your own town. You lost, but you felt good for them.
“I think it was great for college basketball because it’s what separates basketball from just about every other sport. In football, the little guy or the underdog doesn’t usually get that far. They’re not getting into the playoffs, they’re not getting to the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl. But in basketball, the thrill of it is that first weekend and all the upsets, and they carried that all the way through to the Final Four. They did it and they did it in their hometown. The storyline, all of it, was very positive for basketball.
“I’ve still got a picture that shows when (Green) took that shot, and every once in awhile I say if he had made that — I did not think that was Duke’s most talented team — if he had made that, we had a chance to win the championship. It was a unique Final Four and I think the Butler phenomenon made that Final Four.
“Of course it felt like a road game, but then it was a road game for people when we were in Detroit (the 2009 Final Four), so I held nothing against them for that.
“They were the most physical team we played. And think about, it, we played in the Big Ten which back then we could block and tackle guys, They clutched and grabbed and held. I kind of loved it, except it was against me, so I didn’t love it that much. I saw Krzyzewski after the game and I said ‘don’t underestimate how physical they are.’'”
And finally, Duke. That Monday gave rise to one of the enduring memories of the Butler saga — being so close to campus, the Bulldogs actually attended class the day of the national championship. That night, they stood eyeball to eyeball with the Blue Devils.
Krzyzewski: “The very first thing I remember was walking up into the arena, because it’s elevated at Lucas Oil. I was just star-struck with how beautiful it was. By that time, I had been to the Olympics, I’d been to a number of national championship games, but there was just something different about it. It was absolutely beautiful, and the atmosphere was electric. You had two private schools playing for the national championship, and a little bit it felt like a home game for Butler, so we were playing on the road in a national championship game.”
The largest separation in the second half was five-point Duke lead with just over three minutes left. The Bulldogs rallied and the Blue Devils were facing foul trouble, which was ominous since they were getting little from the bench. The Duke reserves would not score a point.
Krzyzewski: “Every possession was going to be tough because they didn’t turn the ball over, and they really played together as one at the offensive end, so you weren’t going to score easy off your defense. They were going to test you into the clock on the offensive end. Defensively they were very physical. You were going to have to play through contact. Not fouls, but contact. We felt it was going to be a low scoring game, which it was.
“It was a game that we saw that our bench couldn’t play in. Sometimes the game becomes above a bench player. I knew we had to stick with our starting five. We had two kids with four fouls, one with 10 minutes to go into the game and the other with five.
“The atmosphere had changed in the last couple of minutes. You could sense momentum and the crowd lending itself to more of a Butler situation.”
Butler cut the lead to 60-59 with 13.6 seconds left, and the ball under the Blue Devils basket. Eventually, a pass went to Hayward, who moved to the right baseline, with a good look at the basket. But he missed.
Krzyzewski: “A key thing was when they called their last timeout on that out-of-bounds. They called it because it was the first time we had put (7-footer Brian) Zoubek on the ball. We had never done that. They took it out again and Zoubek again was on the ball and he came out and challenged Hayward’s shot. To me, that’s the shot, not the heave, that scared you.”
Zoubek was fouled with four seconds left and made one free throw for a 61-59 lead. Krzyzewski had him intentionally miss the second, knowing that Butler had no timeouts left and would have to rush to get a shot. He didn’t want the Bulldogs have the chance to throw a long inbounds pass and someone turn and make a shot to tie.
“I didn’t want to go into overtime. If it goes into overtime, we’re going to lose. So my thing was, let’s bet on that. I’m not sure that it got support of my staff, but would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. That was the moment to win.”
Everyone there remembers what happened next. Hayward raced the ball to midcourt and put up a Hail Mary that very nearly went in. It would have been the greatest shot ever made in NCAA tournament history, but instead was the Bulldogs’ last grasp at a happy ending. They were back in the championship game the next year, and in a way, that might have been even more astounding. But the first time — in Indianapolis — was hard to beat for drama or impact on college basketball.
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Krzyzewski: “We jumped around afterward because it was such an exciting end. My first thought was, quit jumping. Let’s remember the other guy. Brad was very gracious. He said ‘You should jump. You guys just won the national championship.’ It’s probably the last time — at least unless the world changes — that we’ll have three seniors and two juniors on the court. That’s one of the reasons we won. We were talented but we didn’t have a lottery pick. But we had a lot of really good basketball players. It was different than any other Duke team that won. It was more of a good old-fashioned solid, half-court basketball team.
“I think it showed really what the tournament was all about. Basketball doesn’t take as many guys, so the smaller school can win if it gets talent but also has veteran players. That was a great example. I remember talking to Brad later, saying, ‘your world has changed. You’ll be shocked and your school will be shocked at what it means. Just be ready.’ And then they did it again, so they shocked them twice.”
All things considered, there has never been a Final Four story quite like it. Four opposing coaches in the middle of it understand that.