The sports world is dormant right now, and that’s brutal for all sports fans. What I am missing the most is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it is March Sadness this year. With nothing new to watch, I have been watching classic March Madness games, and I came up with the idea for this series called “The Runners-Up,” where I take a deeper look into the teams that came up just short.
This series will highlight some of the best teams in the last 20 years that made it to the National Championship game but lost. A different bounce here or there and these teams may have gone down in history, but instead they had to settle for the silver medal. This series serves to give some of those teams — which may have been forgotten — the recognition they deserve. I already have a few ideas in mind, but if anyone has any tournament runners-up they would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I hope you enjoy!
For this edition of “The Runners-Up,” I’m doing a little two-in-one to remember the Cinderella runs that Butler made in back-to-back years under coach Brad Stevens.
In 2010, Butler had a really good team but not one that anybody expected to make any serious noise in March. The Bulldogs were 28-4 going into the tournament, but the fact that 18 of those wins came in the one-bid Horizon League, nobody really looked at them as a serious threat. Accordingly, they were a No. 5 seed in the tournament.
But the team led by Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack started winning close game after close game. After playing just four ranked teams all season and losing to three of them, Butler knocked off three consecutive ranked opponents starting in the Sweet 16. They beat No. 4 Syracuse 63-59, No. 7 Kansas State 63-56 and No. 13 Michigan State 52-50 to make it to the program’s first National Championship game.
In the championship against Duke, which was essentially a home game for the Bulldogs in Indianapolis, Butler nearly pulled off the impossible but fell just short in the back-and-forth battle, 61-59. What I find so amusing is that everyone cares so little about Duke winning titles that the highlight of the game is Hayward almost drilling a game-winning buzzer beater from half court. A terrific competitive game, and the lasting image is a missed shot by the losing team. That’s funny, and it also shows the magnitude of a team like Butler even making it to that stage.
As impressive as that 2010 run was for Butler, the 2011 run was even more impressive. Hayward left for the NBA, leaving Mack as the only NBA-caliber talent on the team. But Matt Howard had a breakout year as a senior, leading the team with 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, and other players like Andrew Smith and Shawn Vanzant were key contributors as well.
Stevens somehow led that team, which wasn’t nearly as good as the previous year (only 23-9 going into the tournament), back to the title game, becoming the first No. 8 seed to make it that far since Villanova won it all in 1985. A lot of people didn’t even expect Butler to survive the first round against Old Dominion, and they almost didn’t. Howard hit a game-winning layup at the buzzer to win 60-58.
Then, the Bulldogs beat top-seeded Pittsburgh 71-70 in a wild game that featured two controversial foul calls in the final two seconds. Then, after beating Wisconsin, Florida (in OT) and fellow Cinderella team VCU in the Final Four, Butler became the only mid-major school to make it to back-to-back National Championship games in the recent history of the tournament.
Of course, they would lose again, this time to Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies, 53-41, but once again, Butler had shocked the nation by making it further than anyone expected. Butler has since joined the Big East and has become a fixture in March Madness, but that is due to what Stevens was able to build in just his third and fourth seasons as a head coach.
Bringing a program like Butler to national prominence with back-to-back appearances in the title game is one of the most impressive feats in the last 20 years of college basketball. It also made Stevens a highly-pursued coach by many prestigious programs. Although Stevens would stay put for another couple of years, he couldn’t turn down a job as the head coach of the Boston Celtics in 2013. He has since become one of the best young coaches in the league, but it all started with his time at Butler and these two magical tournament runs.