HOUSTON -- "You are on the slopes of Mount Everest, very near the top now."
The Butler Bulldogs ate their Friday dinner in a Maggiano's restaurant near their hotel, and during the meal, coach Brad Stevens took time to share with them an email. It was from a 1989 Butler alumnus named Matt White, who had appeared before them in person on the same day last year, in a private practice at Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse. His wife had read his message that time, because he cannot speak or move his limbs. He has battled with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past 11 years and is confined to a wheelchair. He breathes through a ventilator, and in order to write, he must signal out each letter to a computer using laser-guided headgear. Every sentence is a painstaking process. The email Stevens was holding from White contained 976 words; they speculated that he'd been writing it for days, ever since they clinched the trip to the Final Four.
Last season, White wrote them that he'd come from Cape Haze, Fla., where he lives, to see the Bulldogs win a national championship. He saw them come within one Gordon Hayward shot of doing just that. This year, he wrote about the process of climbing Mount Everest. It requires acclimatization, or "allowing the body to create and retain oxygen-carrying red blood cells as needed," by adjusting to extreme altitude in stages, from lower base camp, to advance base camp, to the final climb. White said he climbs his personal Everest every day, by coping with a fatal disease for seven years longer than doctors expected. He told them that their climb had succeeded so far because they trusted in their teammates ("no one climbs alone"), had courage ("nothing rattles you"), and never quit on a single possession.
"Look at where you are," he wrote. "On the high slopes of the highest mountain in college basketball!"
Indeed, look at where Butler is: back in the title game for the second straight season, with only UConn standing in the way of college basketball's first mid-major national championship. The view from here does not seem real. That the eighth-seeded Bulldogs would beat Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Florida and VCU in succession to once again be playing on a Monday night in April is difficult to fathom. "I don't think anyone can dream it," Stevens said. "I don't care whether you're Kentucky, or UConn or Duke -- it's hard to get back."
Consider the past two teams to have reached consecutive title games, and how little the Bulldogs have in common with them: The Florida squad that was there in 2006 and '07 had five players taken in the '07 NBA Draft, including three in the lottery. The 1996, '97 and '98 Kentucky teams had six first-round picks in all. Butler's aura is still more Milan High than mega-power -- and Milan, if you didn't know, was the Indiana state runner-up in 1953, the year before its fairytale ending. The Bulldogs had Gordon Hayward in the first go-round, then lost him to the draft, and now its scoring star is combo guard Shelvin Mack, who is projected as a second-rounder. He had 24 points (on 8-of-11 shooting) in the 70-62 win over VCU on Saturday night, a performance that may or may not have been motivated by a fib from teammate Ronald Nored, who claimed that the Rams' Ed Nixon had said Mack "wasn't going to be one of the best players he'd guarded in the tournament."
Mack said he Googled Nixon and couldn't find anything, "so I kind of knew that Ron was lying" -- but he remained upset. VCU had fueled its Cinderella run by watching infuriating clips of ESPN announcers picking against the Rams. Butler had reached the point where it had to make things up. This deep in the dance, you do whatever you can to get an edge.
The true Butler edge is tactical. Motivational fire only goes so far in the NCAA tournament. VCU was the emotional team coming into Saturday -- the pressing, running team with swagger, which ended its open practice on Friday with its 33-year-old coach, Shaka Smart, taking a charge and diving on the floor for loose balls. The Bulldogs kept talking about being "businesslike" this time; their emotional experience had come last year, in Indianapolis, when their whole hometown embraced them for the Final Four weekend. Sequestered in Houston, they may be more focused, and more acclimated to the scene.
Before they took the court against the Rams, Nored reminded them of how they'd previously dealt with hot mid-majors. On Jan. 7, five days removed from a 24-point loss at Milwaukee, Butler hosted a 15-1 Cleveland State team that was getting votes in the Associated Press poll, and was being regarded as the new king of the Horizon League. Like VCU, the Vikings liked to apply pressure and accelerate the tempo. Butler controlled the game and turned it into a 23-point rout. "Remember Jan. 7," Nored said to his teammates. "That's when we came out and showed Cleveland State how to play basketball."
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For the first couple of minutes on Saturday, it did not look like the Bulldogs would be teaching VCU anything. As senior Matt Howard said, "We got dictated to." Butler succeeded in breaking the Rams' diamond press by working the ball to Howard at midcourt and then up the wings, but was so rushed that it couldn't finish on the offensive end. It gave up four early threes to go down 15-7. Then it started putting on a clinic in how to stop a team in transition. Assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry said the staff had stressed the need to "build a wall" against VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez on the break; the Bulldogs sprinted back and used multiple defenders to block off the lane, and were always conscious of where the Rams' most dangerous shooters were lurking.
Starting two-guard Shawn Vanzant and Nored, their defensive stopper in reserve, did such a diligent job of locking up Rodriguez that he was just 1-of-8 from the field, finishing with three points. Gunner Brandon Rozzell, who had been 17-of-35 on threes coming into the semifinals, was 0-of-3 from long range. Butler's D has been phenomenal in the tournament, but no one expected to look at the stat sheet and see that VCU had scored zero (seriously, zero!) fast-break points. The Rams had been scoring around 15 percent of their points in transition on the season, according to Synergy Sports logs -- and 15 percent of their final total, 62, is 9.3. They lost by eight.
Stevens had also given his team two lofty rebounding goals against an undersized VCU lineup: "We need to get 80 percent back on the defensive glass, and 40 percent back on the offensive," he said. They got 84.2 back on D, with guards Mack (six defensive boards), Nored (four) and Zach Hahn (four) making a concerted effort to chip in, and 38.1 back on offense, largely due to the effort of Howard (four offensive boards, including the putback that gave them a six-point lead with 58 seconds left) and freshman Khyle Marshall (five).
Marshall is their energy guy off the bench who says he gets his inspiration by doing one thing while waiting to go in: "I watch Matt Howard." Sitting in the stands as a fan during last year's title game -- he had traveled all the way from Florida to see his future team -- Marshall said he could barely contain himself. "The whole time, I was like, give me a jersey," he said. "I was jumping out of my seat."
Kemba Walker never came off the court for UConn against Kentucky, and led all scorers with 18 points. (Chris Stepping/Reuters)
UConn's sophomore power forward, Alex Oriakhi, watched last season's Butler-Duke game on television from Storrs, Conn. The Huskies had missed the NCAA tournament altogether, finishing 18-16 and losing in the second round of the NIT on March 22, and were already a few weeks into their offseason. Oriakhi said that when Hayward's shot went off the rim, "I was probably more upset about it than Butler was." The reason? "I'm all about having the underdog win."
Who, really, is the underdog in this year's national title game? Despite the fact that the Bulldogs began the season ranked in the AP poll, and UConn did not, and despite the fact that Butler has a roster full of players with title-game experience, and the Huskies do not, Las Vegas had the Bulldogs listed as 3.5-point underdogs late on Saturday night. UConn, after all, has Kemba Walker, whom coach Jim Calhoun correctly calls "the best player in college basketball," and Butler does not.
Walker willed his team through the Big East tournament, and then the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament, and then in Saturday's 56-55 win over Kentucky, played all 40 minutes, scoring 18 points to will them within one win of a national championship. UConn winning it all would be as improbable as Butler; no one, not even Walker, expected the Huskies to be here with a supporting cast that primarily features three freshmen (Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith), one sophomore (Oriakhi) and one senior (Charles Okwandu). Because of what UConn has done in the past -- Calhoun has two national titles, most recently in 2004, and has produced scores of NBA players -- its name has powerhouse associations, but the 2010-11 version is far more Cinderella than juggernaut.
Calhoun could very well retire if he wins this title; it would be his most improbable championship of all, and he'd avoid having to serve the NCAA-mandated suspension that awaits him next winter due to the Nate Miles scandal. Walker said he thought "it would be a great note" on which Calhoun could depart. Stevens, meanwhile, is a future Hall-of-Famer who's just getting started, and Walker presents his toughest game-planning test of the tournament. Stevens' scouting chops are revered by members of his own staff; on Friday, his coordinator of basketball operations, Darnell Archey, said, "Giving Brad Stevens a week to prepare for VCU is just scary."
Archey was right. The Rams we saw on Saturday did not look like the Rams we saw in the rest of the tournament. Now, can the defense of Vanzant and Nored, and the scrambling help of their teammates, make Walker look human? While it's unlikely that the Bulldogs will execute as poorly on offense as Kentucky did, with Brandon Knight shooting 6-of-23 and the team going 4-of-12 from the free-throw line, no one knows if Butler can contain Kemba.
Stevens was back in his hotel room late Saturday night, formulating the start of a plan. But before he left Reliant Stadium, a TV reporter asked if the "pain" from last year's title-game loss to Duke fueled him, and Stevens recoiled. "We had no pain last year," he said, sharply. "We played our best game of the tournament in the national championship, so there was no pain. I don't care about the result. I want us to play hard, play smart and give everything for each other, and that's it."