Hear that? That loud murmuring is the sound of basketball coaches across the country lauding the virtues of the two teams who played in last night’s NCAA basketball championship. They’re saying: “See what happens when you play hard smart defense! See what happens when you pass well and don’t turn it over! Fundamentals – did you see those fundamentals?”
Unfortunately the Butler Bulldogs came up just short. They weren’t quite tall enough to handle Duke’s height, and Gordon Hayward missed on two chances to become a Hoosier’s-style legend when his baseline floater and half-court heave caromed off. Duke won the game, and they probably deserved it, though I will always question the validity of the calls Coach K’s teams seem to get. In this case it was a pair of soft fouls on Butler center Matt Howard, who the Blue Devils could not handle in the paint. Had Howard played more minutes, I’d have liked Butler’s chances. It was also a couple of questionable charge calls – one on Scheyer that would’ve been his 4th and one on Singler that was instead called a travel. But Duke has seemed to get those calls for 20 years now, and you have to look at the good coaching by K, and the fact that he recruits smart, heady, skilled, players.
There was a lot of skill and savvy on display last night. For the basketball purist, this game was a treat. You saw players doing the basics without fail – screening out, throwing good passes, hedging on screens, making free throws. You saw smart shot selection, attention to tempo, good spacing, and court awareness. No one would claim that these were the most athletic or offensively dynamic teams, but those other teams weren’t as smart or as sound either. Butler and Duke were also led by veterans – juniors and seniors for the most part – which is a welcome tonic to the one-and-done phenoms the Sportscenter guys are always blathering about.
When you watched Butler’s cast of strong perimeter players fighting through screens, going after rebounds, getting their hands on passes – that’s basketball. Those guys have taken to heart the defensive fundamentals coaches yell about to such a degree, it’s become second nature. When you see a slow guy like Zoubek able to jump out on screens so effectively by anticipating and keeping his balance, you quit wondering why Coach K has won so many games (and why the hell, if Zoubek can do it, can’t Mike Tisdale or Mike Davis learn how to hedge). When you see the mental toughness and will displayed by these two teams… Well, let’s just say if my kids were older, this would have been a great game to watch for teaching points.
In the end, Hayward couldn’t secure the Hollywood ending. That’s OK, though. The NCAA showed it’s best last night – perhaps a last hurrah before they screw it all up by expanding the field.