Can Butler add chapter to upset lore?
INDIANAPOLIS -- The moments that made the NCAA tournament a premier American sporting event came in a torrent between 1979 and '89.
It started with Bird-Magic in '79, and then eight of the next 10 title games were decided by five points or less. In that time, Michael Jordan was introduced to the world, Keith Smart had a sudden star turn, and Danny Manning did his one-man-team thing. But the two championship games that resonate most were in 1983 and '85.
In '83 it was North Carolina State, a No. 6 seed that needed an ACC tournament run to make the NCAA tourney, shocking Phi Slama Jama Houston 54-52 on a dunked air ball at the buzzer. In '85 it was Villanova, a No. 8 seed, shooting 79 percent to stun No. 1 Georgetown 66-64.
Monday night, we have the opportunity for the next unforgettable upset in NCAA tourney lore. If fifth-seeded Butler beats No. 1 seed Duke, we'll all be scrambling to quantify the magnitude of the moment.
It's a big if, given the way the Blue Devils played in stomping West Virginia on Saturday and the medical issues the Bulldogs bring out of their brawl with Michigan State. But several people involved in the two great upsets of the '80s like Butler's chances.
"Yeah, I think Butler can win," said Rollie Massimino, Villanova's coach in '85. "I don't think Butler is a significant underdog, quite frankly. They're an underdog, but every time they play, they find a way to win."
"Duke is very tough," said North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe, a starting guard on the '83 Wolfpack team. "They can hurt you in different ways, they're all smart players, they don't make a lot of mistakes, and they're very mentally tough. But Butler, they probably play their game as well as anyone I've seen in the tournament. That's always a tough team to beat, one that won't be taken out of what they want to do."
"Everyone is going to pick Duke, so that takes the pressure off," said Lowe's backcourt mate, Dereck Whittenburg. "[Butler's] belief level is very, very high right now. And it should be."
"Duke's going to have a lot of pressure on them," said Brigham Young coach Dave Rose, who played for Houston in '83. "Everyone's going to think they're going to win. It will be a closer game than people think, because it's so hard to beat Butler. We all know that if Duke shoots the ball like [it did against WVU] again, they're going to be tough to beat. But can Duke stop what Butler has done? They've won 25 in a row and they just figure out ways to win. Can Duke find a way to stop this runaway train?"
Think about that for a minute: Duke almighty, trying to stop the runaway train that is Butler. Who ever thought you'd hear that sentence?
While this Bulldogs team is certainly legit, the overall disparity between the two programs is immense. Among the differences between the two is the age of the coaches, and 33-year-old Brad Stevens of Butler said the first college basketball game he vividly remembers watching was Villanova-Georgetown.
Asked if he can take anything from that upset and apply it to this game, Stevens said, "I guess if we shoot 78 percent, we'll have a better chance than if we shoot 15-for-49 [Butler's ghastly numbers against Michigan State]."
Don't count on Butler shooting like Nova. But there are some other elements that would help the Bulldogs shock the world:
Butler confidence -- both coming into the game and in the latter stages.
"They definitely believe," Whittenburg said. "They're very numb right now -- they're so focused, they're only thinking about winning. They so believe in what they're doing, they're just going to play."
What's amazing about Butler, they're playing ugly and they're winning. That's a sign of a good team.” -- Former NC State guard Dereck Whittenburg
"We weren't intimidated at all," Massimino said of the Nova-Georgetown game.
Neither was North Carolina State. And both the Wolfpack and Wildcats had the belief not to get rattled when they fell behind in the second half against heavy favorites. Butler displayed that same poise and tenacity in upsetting Syracuse and Kansas State in the West Regional -- holding leads almost all game, falling behind late and then regrouping to close out the victories.
"They have to stick to who they are and play their game, all the way through," Lowe said. "If you get down and try to start doing different things, that's when Duke will get you. Stay the course. Duke is never going to stop coming, so you have to do the same."
Said Rose: "They haven't lost since December. When you don't lose for that long, there's not too many negative thoughts that go through your mind. Even when they got down, they did not flinch."
Lowe remembers the off-day practice in Albuquerque between the semifinals and final. North Carolina State practiced first and went hard. Then he recalls Houston sauntering into the gym wearing Walkmans, sunglasses and slippers.
"We said, 'What's going on here?'" Lowe said. "It's the small things -- you're looking for something to get you going."
Rose did not dispute Lowe's account of Houston's Sunday mindset some 27 years ago.
"That wouldn't surprise me if we were that way," he said. "We were very relaxed, very confident."
Much like this Final Four, the widespread belief in '83 was that the later semifinal game was the de facto national championship. In it, Houston pulled away from Louisville 94-81 in a breathtaking display of athleticism. In the earlier semifinal, NC State had slugged past fellow long shot Georgia, 67-60.
"As soon as our game was over, everyone wanted to start talking about, 'Was that the real championship game? Was it done?'" Rose recalled. "We lived with that all day Sunday and Monday."
Houston's confidence remained intact into the final five minutes of the game. Rose remembers the Cougars leading by seven with 4:52 to play and going to the foul line to shoot a one-and-one.
"My goodness," he thought. "We're going to win the national championship."
Several missed free throws and one miracle air ball later, Houston's best chance to win a title was gone.
Any chance Duke is overconfident Monday night?
"No chance," Lowe said.
So much for that theory.
Butler winning the tempo battle.
According to Ken Pomeroy's tempo statistics, the two teams actually play at a similar pace. Duke's games average 65.6 possessions, and Butler checks in at 64.2. More than any Blue Devils team I can remember, this one has been successful playing both fast and slow.
But Duke is more amenable to playing faster and tends to slow down its games late while holding a lead. If the Bulldogs can keep the game to a crawl the entire way -- much like NC State and Villanova did in the '80s -- it could be an advantage for Butler.
"We knew who we were and we weren't going to let them play their game," Lowe said of the '83 title game. "You could see the frustration start to set in [for Houston] from having to play our way, grinding in a half-court set."
The advantage both the Wildcats and Wolfpack had back then was the lack of a shot clock. There's only so much air Butler can take out of the ball before it becomes a turnover or a panicked shot -- but the Bulldogs are adept at milking the clock in search of good looks at the basket.
"They keep the game close," Massimino said. "That's a big plus. They never let the game get away from them. They control the tempo. They just know how to play, those kids."
And even if the game dissolves into a barrage of missed shots -- well, Butler won that way Saturday night, too.
"What's amazing about Butler, they're playing ugly and they're winning," Whittenburg said. "That's a sign of a good team. They're so like our team. We won every game but one in the last two minutes."
Aside from a 19-point win in the Sweet 16, NC State's margins of victory in the '83 tournament were two, one, one, seven and two. Aside from an 18-point win in the first round, Butler's margins of victory are two, four, seven and two.
In the eyes of those who were there, similarities exist between the epic '80s upsets and the potential for another one here. But it wouldn't be historic if it were easy. Butler might need its own miracle air ball, or some other form of divine intervention, to beat Duke.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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