HOUSTON – The ending was far from story book.
If life were a movie, if the 2011 Final Four were to have happened in a Hollywood screenplay, the ending would have been quite different. Just one year removed from nearly taking down college basketball’s villainous empire and playing without quite possibly the only lottery pick that Brad Stevens will ever suit up in a Butler jersey in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Bulldogs would have taken down the UConn Huskies and their superstar point guard and their sanction-riddled head coach.
It was perfect.
After nearly pulling off one of the greatest postseason runs in the history of the sport, Butler struggled through much of the season before hitting their stride in February, winning nail-biter after nail-biter in March, and cutting down the nets in April.
But Hollywood just wasn’t in the cards.
For the second straight year, Butler’s season came to a disappointing conclusion as the Bulldogs were once again the national runner-up, falling to UConn 53-41.
The disappointment in the Butler locker room was palpable. It was full of hung heads and reddened, swollen eyes that had recently been wiped clean of tears. Last year, the Bulldogs were disappointed, but they were playing with house money. They were the loveable underdog, a team from the Horizon League leaving a trail of destruction through the big boys en route to the national title game.
Butler truly believed they belonged. This was no longer a mid-major with a feel-good story. This was a powerhouse program that plays the game the right way while being led by one of the country’s best coaches, regardless of age. This was a team with a different swagger. In their eyes, they were a national championship program. Its why last season’s disappointment became this season’s devastation. Butler was, legitimately, crushed.
“We’re just coming out of a locker room that’s hurting, a locker room that’s got a lot of pride because of the way our kids carried us this year and the way our five seniors have acted their entire career, what they’ve done for Butler,” Butler head coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “It’s hard to talk about the game and really care about the intricacies of the game when you’re talking about the personal relationships and the things that you develop as a team over time.”
The Bulldogs have every right to be disappointed. They should be devastated. You aren’t a true competitor if you can lose a national title two years in a row and not be upset. Hell, I was hurting just being in that locker room.
But the Bulldogs have no reason to be ashamed. Once the hurt wears off, once the pain of the loss begins to subside, one can only hope that the Bulldogs can look back and understand what they accomplished. They played for a national title two seasons in a row. That’s an impressive accomplishment for anyone. For a team from the Horizon League, where getting into the tournament is usually considered a great season, its a truly remarkable and legendary feat.
“Its been really fun to be a part of these last two teams,” Butler’s junior leader Ronald Nored said after the game. “To be a part of a program that doesn’t even necessarily care about the result of a game but more about each other? We can talk about what happened in the basketball game, but the thing in this locker room is all about the seniors. We’re just upset that they have to go.”
This was a team that accomplished something that no one thought possible. This was a team that showed that you don’t need the budget of a power conference school to compete. This is a program that proved its not necessary to have a roster full of McDonald’s all-americans to play for a national title. More than anything Butler showed the college basketball world that deep tournament runs are possible for teams that do things the right way.
The Butler way.
“Being such a competitor, [this loss] hurts a lot,” Shelvin Mack said, just minutes after going 4-15 from the floor against a smothering UConn defense. “You work so hard to get to this stage and you’re not able to get over the hump, its a very humbling experience.”
“It’s really hard to put that into words right now because, you know, we wanted a little bit more,” Matt Howard said.
“Maybe at some point I can look back and be proud of what this group has accomplished.”
There should be no maybe in that sentence.
It may take a day. It may take a month. It may take a year. But eventually, every single member of this Butler program should hold their head high.
Because the Bulldogs’ two year run is one of the most incredible feats in college basketball history.