The Hardcourt Shuffle: That Old Butler Magic, Cuse is in the House
By Shane Ryan on January 21, 2013 12:36 PM ET
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Let's begin by delving into the realm of the imagination. Pretend it's November 1, 2012, and you and I are real-life acquaintances. Pretend we're having a conversation on a park bench near a vacant outdoor court. The wind is whistling, and it's far too cold to even consider playing, but we can't help stare longingly at the torn net hanging from the bent rim. The wind dies down for a moment, and I tell you that I've had a vision. There will be a number of buzzer-beaters this year, I say, but only one of them will be truly peculiar. You'll watch the replay over and over, but you still won't quite be able to wrap your mind around how it all happened. And tell me, I continue, as the wind begins to howl, tell me which team is involved. More than that, tell me which team wins.
We both know what you'd say, even without the benefit of a mystic vision. "Butler." Of course you'd say Butler. It's always Butler.
Back to the present. If you haven't seen the strangest ending to a college basketball game this season, watch it now. We pick up the action just after Kelly Olynyk makes two free throws to put Gonzaga up 63-62 with 4.6 seconds left:
There are so many thoughts rushing through my brain right now that I need numbers to make sense of it all. So,
1. I still have no idea if Roosevelt Jones got the shot off in time. To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with the decision the referees made. I would've done the same thing. But I don't know if it's right. All of which indicates what many college basketball fans have feared for weeks: The ghost of Sabatino Chen is going to haunt this entire season.
2. Let's talk about that inbounds pass by Dave Stockton, son of all-time NBA assists and steals leader John Stockton. On the surface, it looks pretty poor; he just throws a lob straight to Rosey Jones. But look closer and you'll notice that at the time he releases the ball, or milliseconds before, Kelly Olynyk has good body position on Jones. The physics of Stockton's pass make sense (we'll get to the philosophy in a second), and if Olynyk had just stayed, it would've been an easy thing to make the catch.
3. Except that one of two things happened. Either Olynyk broke away right as Stockton threw the pass, a miscommunication that led to the gift turnover, or — OR — Jones shoved Olynyk at the perfect moment, a classic push-off that led to the turnover. I've watched the video over and over and still can't tell. My gut says it's some combination of the two; Jones definitely had his forearm in Olynyk, but I also think the Canadian dashed away at the worst possible moment. Or, if you prefer, Stockton threw the pass too soon.
4. However, here's some evidence in favor of the push-off. In this interview, Jones drops this nugget:
"I heard the coach tell Stockton to lob it up to Olynyk, so I played behind him. And Stockton actually lobbed it too far, and it fell right in my hands."
In other words, he knew exactly what was coming. And, in all likelihood, knew exactly when a little shove would do the most damage.
5. Which brings up another point: When discussing strategy at a crucial point in the game, DO NOT share that strategy with an opposing player. Inadvertently or not.
6. Especially if the strategy is bad. With 3.5 seconds remaining, inbounding the ball with a one-point lead, the thing you definitely want to avoid is giving the ball to a guard near midcourt with room to run. So why lob the ball into that area? Gonzaga could have done almost anything else — including passing the ball to a Butler player under the far basket — and forced a desperation heave. Stockton's orders, with no timeouts, should have been as follows: Pass the ball to an open player on a cut, so that the pass can't possibly be intercepted. If that fails — and it shouldn't, since inbounding is a relatively simple task, even under intense road pressure — lob the ball toward the other hoop and make Butler go the length of the floor. The two things you cannot do are to lob into no-man's-land, or take a five-second violation. That's it. Why over-think it by designing a modified post-up near half court?
7. Moving on, I'm now convinced that Butler is virtually unbeatable in close games. Without looking it up, I can think of eight high-profile games that Butler won by fewer than three points. I mean, there are three already just this year — Marquette, Indiana, and now Gonzaga. They always find a way. As for close games they lost? I can think of one.
8. But let's get more scientific. In games decided by five points or fewer in the past four years, Butler is 26-9. In postseason elimination games (conference tournament, NIT, NCAA), Brad Stevens is 6-1. Those numbers are incredible, and it's tempting to use it as more evidence for the idea that Stevens is a basketball genius. Which he probably is. But what's really remarkable to me is how lucky they've been. This year, you had Rotnei Clarke's desperation 3 and Dave Stockton's ill-advised pass. In the 2011 tournament, you had a series of favorable tips and bounces that led to another buzzer-beater against Old Dominion, the indescribably weird ending against 1-seed Pittsburgh in the round of 32, and a collapse by Florida. In 2010, the games were just close without being borderline supernatural, but winning three games by eight points has to be considered its own kind of luck. We already knew the Bulldogs were the ultimate Cinderella, but it looks like their clock never strikes midnight.
9. One thing I really love about Brad Stevens is how totally composed he remains on the sideline in scenes of complete mayhem. In this grainy shot from the Marquette game, you can see him in the lower-left hand corner calmly walking to shake Buzz Williams's hand after Clarke's prayer falls. Watch the Gonzaga video again and focus on Stevens at around the :53 mark; he crosses his arms, watches the steal, takes two steps toward Mark Few as Jones launches the shot, and puts his head down just after it goes down as he moves in for the handshake. It's insane. He never reacts. There may be some inconclusive video evidence that he once sort of pumped his fist, but I can't be sure. So, considering the fact that he wins a lopsided percentage of close games — some of them in bizarre fashion — and never seems surprised, my question is this: What does he know??
10. The explanation is probably just that Brad Stevens is a genius. As usual, he managed to rein in a high-powered offense and dictate the tempo and style of play. As usual, his team was physical, tough, resilient, focused, relentless. As usual, Butler survived a rough patch — in this case, an 18-11 start by Gonzaga — erased the deficit, and turned the game into a war of attrition. Notice how the game finished with 58 possessions for each team, 10 fewer than Gonzaga's average. Notice how for the second time this season, the Butler bigs held a talented center (Zeller, Olynyk) well below his season average. Notice how the guards, especially Jones, attacked the basket, resulting in Butler going to the line almost twice as often as the Zags.
In the end, this game followed the formula of so many classic Butler wins over the last four years: Scout the hell out of the opponent and take away what they like to do, refuse to be out-muscled on defense, keep the game close, and then get lucky in the final minute. Even with 3.5 on the clock and a 1-point lead, Mark Few had spent the final 30 minutes of the game watching Stevens make all the important choices. Gonzaga had been dragged down from the level of beautiful offensive execution into a frustrating tug-of-war. No matter what happened on the final play, they were already beat.