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My Sportsman: Butler Bulldogs

If there's one thing the Butler men's basketball program takes pride in, it's perspective. One of the team's many mantras is, "Whatever happens on the basketball court, we don't want it to be the highlight of your life."Sure, we hope the 2009-2010 Bulldogs go on to lives rich in family, love and world-bettering achievement. But let's be serious: when it comes to mind-blowing thrills, it will be hard to top what they did the night of April 5, 2010, in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. No, they didn't win the national championship. But even in falling just inches short of it -- when Gordon Hayward's 45-foot, last-second heave hit the backboard and bounced off the rim, giving Duke a hard-earned 61-59 victory -- they did something worthy of legend: they gave the championship game an all-too-rare, anything's-possible twist whose effects will ripple for years to come. For that, and for the blow they struck for underdogs, late-bloomers and underachievers everywhere, the Bulldogs get my nod for Sportsmen of the Year.

To review the main plot point of that improbable NCAA final: Duke, the bluest of basketball bluebloods, would be facing Butler, a small (4200 undergraduate enrollment) midmajor located six miles away from downtown Indy. Butler had an ancient gym, the 1928-vintage Hinkle Field House, where the finale of Hoosiers was filmed, a youthful coach, 33-year-old Brad Stevens, a roster full of undersized and overlooked players, and old-fashioned priorities: practice was at 6:30 a.m. so it wouldn't conflict with classes. Even the Final Four didn't pose a hurdle to scholarship: on the day of the final players with morning classes were shuttled to campus.

In one sense this game was no David v. Goliath -- Duke had been ranked as low as 10 and Butler as high as 11 during the season -- but there is no overstating the disparity in resources and resumes. Duke had three NCAA championships in its trophy case, the largest basketball budget in the nation ($13,873,859) in its coffers and six McDonald's All-Americans on its roster. Butler had as many Final Four appearances as it had McDonald's honorees (zero), and it spent less on total players' expenses ($347,108) than Duke did on each of its players ($394,068).

Instead of blue-chippers, Butler had players like sophomore guard Shelvin Mack, who grew up in Lexington, Ky. and had scholarship offers reneged by both Marshall and Evansville before Butler came calling. Defensive demon Ronald Nored, another sophomore, rode his bike around the Butler campus when he was a kid, but he never dreamed of going there -- who did? -- until it became his best option. And then there was Hayward, a versatile 6'8" sophomore who would ride his NCAA stardom to a lottery pick in June's NBA draft. He had had a scholarship offer from a BCS school, Purdue, but he turned it down in part because he thought he'd have a better chance to earn an engineering degree at Butler.

The Bulldogs might argue in the lockerroom about the proper way to solve a physics problem, but on the court they were in harmony: Deploying their signature smothering team defense, they held each of their first five NCAA opponents to under 60 points. The final was likewise a defensive grind, but it was edge-of-your-seat thrilling, too. Duke missed opportunities, so did Butler -- the greatest, perhaps, being Hayward's missed baseline jumper with six seconds to go that would have given Butler the lead. With 3.2 seconds left and the Blue Devils up by one, Duke center Brian Zoubek made the first of two free throws, then missed the second on purpose to force Butler, then out of timeouts, to do something desperate to tie or win the game. And so the whole season came down to Hayward's last-gasp shot that spun through the air, a raft of future Hollywood scripts riding with it.

The shot missed, and Duke won. But Butler won, too. Applications and donations to the school have spiked, as has interest in television and, of course, blue chip recruits. Basketball fans won, too. The 2010 NCAA title game might not go down as the greatest ever played, but it's one we will never forget.

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