In the aftermath of Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman's gut-wrenching two missed field goals that cost the Broncos a possible chance at a BCS championship, a friend remarked, "That's not how the movie's supposed to end."
In a tip to real life defeating Hollywood once again, I replied, "Actually, maybe it is."
As hard as it was to believe Butler's dramatic march to within inches of an improbable national title last spring, it's now even more difficult to fathom. When point guard Ronald Nored departed in the first minute of a game at Siena last week with a concussion, the Bulldogs' and Saints' personnel were near mirror images: one star, one good second option, one or two other solid role players and a cadre of inexperienced bench guys who will need to grow up quickly. In other words, Butler looked like a typical mid-major.
"There's going to be a growing curve," Butler coach Brad Stevens said earlier this week, after his Bulldogs lost at home to Evansville. "You look at us last year in Anaheim [for the 76 Classic, where Butler went 1-2], we weren't an NCAA tournament team. After that, we became one. You just have to figure out what goes well and what doesn't and what pieces together. Some years, you're lucky and you know that."
Twelve months ago, everyone expected the 2010-11 season would be that year, one in which Butler could make a deep NCAA run. Senior linchpin Willie Veasley would be gone, but defending league player of the year Matt Howard would be a senior and emerging stars Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward would be juniors. At the time, Butler was scuffling along, with a win over Evan Turner-less Ohio State and a loss to Georgetown, then the bizarre clock-game victory over Xavier and a 10-point defeat at UAB. Indianapolis seemed just to be the home of the school's campus and the host of the Final Four, not a likely candidate for a convergence four months later.
Then came 20 straight wins, Too Big, Yo and then the NCAA tournament. After a second-half rally past UTEP, a last-second stop to edge Murray State and upsets of Syracuse and Kansas State, suddenly the Bulldogs were in the Final Four. And just as suddenly, Hayward was a lock to be a first-round NBA draft pick and plans for this year -- and possibly beyond -- were irreparably changed.
There are very few programs that can handle the early departure of a star. Even when you can recruit McDonald's All-American types, there are no guarantees. Ask UCLA how things have been since Kevin Love left after one season. But for mid-majors who rely on classes maturing together, it's often way more harmful to lose someone early. In the case of Hayward, it wasn't crazy a year ago to think he'd be at Butler all four years, so timing the recruiting to fill behind him was a huge challenge.
"If you've got 13 scholarships still and somebody's deciding whether or not if they're leaving, you definitely are in a pinch if they go," Stevens said. "There's no question, no ifs, ands and buts about it, but that's why again you have to think about that in advance a little bit and you have to be doing a good job developing guys in your system."
Heading into Saturday's title-game rematch with Duke, Butler is still sifting through numerous options. Howard noted after the Siena win that he doesn't "know that we have five 35-minute guys like we did last year," and the buzz that night was about how well the bench had played, with sophomores Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall providing a significant lift. Standout Siena forward Ryan Rossiter, who has seen his fair share of good basketball the last three years (Siena has twice made the second round of the NCAAs), raved afterward about the Bulldogs' collective discipline.
"They just play so well as a team," Rossiter said. "I don't think people understand the importance of that phrase: team basketball. No one comes in off that bench and plays uncharacteristically. Every one of them knows their role."
At this stage, though, preseason expectations may have been too high. The Bulldogs are very much a work in progress, especially with Nored still sidelined (his status for Duke is still questionable). Against Evansville, secondary contributions were limited, playing a part in the unexpected defeat. Then in Wednesday's two-point escape at Loyola (Ill.) in the Horizon League opener, senior Zach Hahn and freshman Khyle Marshall provided crucial boosts, and maybe another small step forward was taken.
In Hollywood, sequels rarely match the originals, so while Butler-Duke II looks good on the marquee, expectations must be resized. Duke won the title and immediately reloaded. Despite its newfound notoriety, Butler still doesn't get a Kyrie Irving, so Stevens knows finding this team's identity will take some time. He got a quick measure of this season's Bulldogs by "throwing them to the wolves" at Louisville and continues to get answers (and some wins), even without getting much so far from Nored or receiving dominant efforts from Mack or Howard.
"I think our team's pretty good," Stevens said. "I think we're going to stay together, get a little bit better and if we can get that kind of production off the bench, I like where we're headed."
There's a good chance Stevens won't like what he sees on the scoreboard Saturday afternoon, but the stakes are also different. This isn't for the 2010 championship; it's just another evaluation point for a question that will impact the chase for 2011's: Can Butler itself be this season's Butler? Someone needs to be. In basketball reality, Cinderella has never gotten the Prince, but watching her get gussied up for the dance is still terrific theater.