The Butler bonus: compatibility
A Final Four appearance matters more to the Bulldogs than it would to, say, Kentucky
There is no possible way Butler coach Brad Stevens is as calm on the inside as he is on the outside. No way. It's not just that he doesn't get rattled; he never changes expression. Poor play, poor officiating -- it's all the same to him. Late in Butler's win over Kansas State on Saturday, when everyone was coming unglued, the camera caught him with the same serene look on his face as he told his players, "Play your game. Just play your game."
And they did. They played calmly and patiently. Unlike many teams -- K-State among them -- Butler didn't start rushing shots or committing stupid fouls. In the last five minutes, K-State's Denis Clemente played frantically and desperately; Jacob Pullen, shockingly, faded into the background, nearly disappearing. (The double-overtime win over Xavier two days earlier looked like it produced a nasty hangover.)
Stevens looks like he checks the mirror every morning to see if it's time to start shaving. He doesn't look like the guy you'd want in charge of evacuating a burning building, but after watching his team play in the tournament, there's nobody else I'd rather have. He's got the perfect team for his temperament, and I guess we could argue all day about whether it's coincidental or causal. It seems likely that some of Stevens' calm has infiltrated his players' personalities.
Here's a team that wasn't calm: Kentucky. There's a link here between Butler and Kentucky, and it goes beyond the simple truth that most noncommitted fans root for teams like Butler and against teams like Kentucky. Butler is a team of guys who probably don't have to worry about turning pro early. (Sophomore Gordon Hayward might be an exception next year at this time.) Although relatively young, the Bulldogs aren't McDonald's All-Americans who believe the system should be geared to their abilities. They aren't fighting for the ball at the end of games as if it is their birthright. Their willingness to rely on each other and make the right decisions in tight games is a perfect manifestation of the benefits of compatibility.
Kentucky, on the other hand, was a great collection of talent soon to be dispersed to the NBA. The Wildcats were just blowing through, on their way to somewhere better. That deal was made when the NBA decided high school kids had to spend a year in basketball purgatory -- Europe, Israel, Lexington -- before hitting the big time. Kentucky had a great season -- how could it not with two first-team All-Americans in John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins? -- but it didn't appear to mean as much to the Wildcats as it might to some others.
Besides, the way John Calipari constructed this team, it was Final Four or failure. He undoubtedly disagrees, and Kentucky boosters would, too. But a team with three one-and-done first-rounders (Wall, Cousins, Eric Bledsoe) leaves no room for future growth. You can't be satisfied with making the Elite Eight under the assumption that you'll get better next year. And again, it deserves repeating: two first-team All-Americans.
As I was watching Cousins barking back and forth with Calipari on the bench for about the eighth time Saturday, I had a question: Do you want to coach like this? Do you want to go through every season with guys who have no loyalty to you beyond that one year? How do you get them to completely buy into the program when everyone knows how fleeting it all is?
The NCAA/NBA system has created a strange construct that gives temporary advantages to the 20 or so universities that are in a position to benefit from the system. It's a huge moneymaker during a down economy, and Calipari isn't the only one recruiting and enrolling these guys. He gets more flak than others because he's proven he can make it work. Which, in turn, means he'll no doubt have many more chances in the future.
In fact, it's starting to look like Calipari is hinging his coaching image, reputation and (eventually) legacy on these guys. Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe -- attracting the one-and-dones is either a wildly coincidental series of random occurrences or a strategy.
Again, they have to go somewhere, and they have to be coached by someone. There are a lot of super-talented high schoolers out there who would like to spend their mandatory pre-NBA year at Lexington Prep. Anyone can complain about fairness, and Calipari probably feels unfairly singled out on this topic, but you can't complain when people believe a Final Four is the least they should receive in compensation for the compromise. And make no mistake, it is a compromise.
This isn't a judgment. (Well, maybe a little.) We all know the deal, and we all fall for it anyway. We become engrossed in the games and the stories, and we suspend most of our skepticism toward the whole rank enterprise because the spectacle is so profoundly good. We know there are many things going on that we'd rather not know about, but we don't let it destroy the experience.
But then, every once in a while, Butler happens. And Kentucky goes home. And somehow, rightly or wrongly, we find a little validation. It feels like a reward.