And now Butler is back in the Final Four, improbably trying to finish the job that was started -- no less improbably -- last spring. They have won four consecutive games as underdogs, taking down a highly regarded Old Dominion team, a No. 1 seed from the Big East (Pittsburgh), a No. 4 seed from the Big Ten (Wisconsin) and a No. 2 seed from the SEC (Florida). On Saturday they play the bizarre role of Final Four old hand when they meet fresh Cinderella Virginia Commonwealth in the first of two national semifinals at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
But back to February.
At the time, the current Butler Bulldogs were 20-9. ("Twenty and nine," said Stevens that day. "It hasn't been all roses, but still, we're twenty and nine."). They had rebounded from a lousy stretch in late January, when they lost three out of four games, including two in overtime (having watched this team execute late in games, back-to-back overtime losses are almost unfathomable at this point) and fell to 14-9. Bracketologists far and wide had them dumped from the NCAA tournament.
There was an subplot, too. It went something like this: What if Gordon had stayed? Gordon would, of course, be Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs' versatile and athletic 6-foot-8 swingman who had entered the draft after his sophomore year. He was picked ninth overall by the Utah Jazz and signed a contract that would guarantee him $5 million over the first two years, with a chance to make a lot more if he's successful.
In the story I wrote in Sports Illustrated on last year's title game and on Hayward's decision and departure, I delved somewhat into that agonizing process. Given what's happened since, it's worth providing a little more.
For most of Hayward's sophomore year, his father, also named Gordon, had done fact-finding, while allowing his son to play basketball. The father is an engineer who has also coached basketball, and hence well-suited to the task. By the time Butler reached the Final Four, the father was leaning toward advising the son to enter the NBA draft. Hayward's mother, Jody, was not on board, and this all came to a head when they sat in the family car after the national championship game and Gordon (the dad) said to his wife and two others in the vehicle, "Well, he needs to go to the NBA now. What more can he do? Come back, get to the championship game and make the shot?"
Jody Hayward, still not down with the whole idea, said, "No, if he hit the shot, it would have been clear."
At which point, Gordon (the dad) said, "Honey, seriously?"
It was no less emotional on the Butler campus. The mood was eloquently described (and felt) by Susan S. Neville, a native Hoosier and professor of English and Creative Writing at Butler, in her book Butler's Big Dance. Neville wrote:
"In the final weeks of the semester, Coach Stevens announced he would stay at Butler and Gordon Hayward announced he was deciding whether to jump to the NBA or stay in school. We felt sorry for Gordon. Feeling sorry is your default mode, my husband says. Gordon's default mode is that he has that sweet and mournful face. It's easy to project feelings onto it.
"It was everyone's decision, though, his decision. It's all our decisions in a landlocked state, whether to be the one who stays or the one who goes."
On the first Friday in May, Hayward decided to be the one who goes. As I quoted him in my SI piece, it was strictly a practical business decision. Had he chosen emotionally, he would have stayed at Butler, which lies just a few minutes from his home in Brownsburg. "It was hard," he said when I talked to him in Salt Lake City in February. "I was 20 years old" -- he just turned 21 -- "and I had never gone away from home. ... I needed to look further down the line."
His father said to me, also in February, "I really thought it would be a win-win for Gordon and for Butler. If he had stayed, the expectations would have been out of sight, for Gordon and for Butler. People would have been thinking, 'Oh, they've got to get back to the Final Four.' And that's tough even for teams like Kentucky and Kansas, which have four or five stars every year."
But at the time, it was not looking so great. Butler had come back from 14-9, but was no lock to make the tournament. Hayward, meanwhile, after getting drafted by what had been the most stable franchise in the NBA, had seen coach Jerry Sloan retire and star point guard Deron Williams traded to New Jersey. That was earthshaking stuff in Salt Lake City. Hayward was in the middle, the youngest player on a reeling team, getting unpredictable playing time and struggling to figure out the game.
"It's been up and down for both Butler and Gordon," said his father at the time. "I still hope it can be a win-win."
The Jazz have been a slopshow since Sloan resigned, clearly rebuilding. They have lost 15 of 19 games and will almost surely miss the playoffs. Injuries have piled up in recent weeks, and now guard Devin Harris and forwards Andrei Kirilenko and Raja Bell are all out with injuries. All of this has led to Hayward getting a chance to run serious minutes, an average of 29 over the last five games and a season-high 37 in Monday night's home loss to the Wizards. It's possible he will start on Friday night.
None of this has happened by accident. For most of the year, on game days, Hayward has run through an entire practice on the arena floor before the crowd arrived. He has worked at adjusting to the differences in the NBA game. "With the 24-second clock, decision-making is much quicker," he said. "You've got to decide to do something faster. The ball doesn't go side-to-side as much."
Defense is entirely different, much less physical. In an early-season game, Hayward tried to body up Carmelo Anthony and was whistled for a succession of fouls. "At Butler, we played tough, physical defense," he said. "Up here, I almost wasn't allowed to guard Carmelo."
Despite that soulful face that Susan Neville (accurately) described, Hayward is passionate about his game. His increased minutes on a failing team are a mixed blessing. This season is essentially over for the Jazz, but Hayward is just getting started. "One thing I figured out," he said. "You have to constantly be ready, at all times." He has scored 31 points in his last three games and on Monday night, delivered this rejection of John Wall.
Last Sunday, Hayward told reporter Jody Genessy of the Desert News that he missed chunks of the Butler-Florida regional final while doing his pregame workout, but that he caught the finish in the locker room. I texted back and forth with Hayward after Butler's first-round win over ODU, and he told me he also watched that one in the locker room. That is where Hayward goes to work. He is constant contact with his old teammates, particularly forward Garrett Butcher, his old roommate, who played a major role off the bench in the first-round win over ODU.
Meanwhile, it would be absurd to say that Butler hasn't missed Hayward, but the Bulldogs are back in the Final Four, and for a mid-major school to achieve that after losing a player to the NBA lottery is astounding. In this way, Hayward's decision to leave has allowed Butler, both as a program and as individuals, to excel outside of the star's shadow. Anyone who might have suggested that Hayward was needed to carry the Bulldogs to a Final Four has been disabused of that theory.
Stevens' coaching acumen has been on display for all to see. The relentless Matt Howard has been allowed to flourish from the perimeter. Shelvin Mack looks like an NBA player. And from the frustration of February, Butler has as good a chance as any team in the Final Four to win the whole thing. The Bulldogs are less an outsider than a year ago. Up there, Hayward is growing into his role in the NBA. Down here, Butler has been made bigger by his absence.
The whole thing, as of this day, looks suspiciously like what Gordon Hayward's dad would call a win-win.