Don't remember this book by its ending
HOUSTON -- This game, this historic poor shooting, is not how Butler's improbable two-year run should be remembered.
In case this is the last we see of the Bulldogs in the Final Four for a while, try to wipe from your memory the horrid offensive performance that was on display Monday night at Reliant Stadium in a 53-41 national championship loss to the Connecticut Huskies.
"Butler is amazing," said UConn junior and Final Four most outstanding player Kemba Walker. "Everybody says Cinderella and stuff like that. I think other schools are going to really look at Butler and think they have a shot, too. Butler has a great coach. Coach [Brad] Stevens is one of the best coaches in the collegiate level at this point."[+] EnlargeStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIt was written all over their coach's face: The Bulldogs simply couldn't shoot on Monday.
The admiration and respect Stevens and Butler have received over the past two postseasons from coaching colleagues and players is deserving of a team that is a two-time runner-up.
If you're a fan of the "little guy," try to put in perspective what Butler has done the past two seasons and it'll make it a little easier to digest that horror show in Houston.
Playing in back-to-back title games had occurred only 17 previous times in the history of the NCAA tournament, and every time it had occurred since 1959, it was by a program in a "power six" conference. Against the best that college basketball has to offer, this little school from Indianapolis went 10-2 in the past two NCAA tournaments.
"The awareness grown [of Butler] is immense, not locally, not nationally but globally," Stevens said. "I've always said that I want our guys to be known as a team, as great student-athletes, and we've had a multitude of stories that have recognized that and that's positive."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Sunday that if the coaching profession is left to Stevens, just 34, it is in good hands. In four seasons, he has coached in two title games and seen the development of a lottery pick (Gordon Hayward), a likely first-round pick (Shelvin Mack) and, as Stevens noted, the best player to ever put on a Butler uniform in Matt Howard.
"I don't know if I've changed; losing still stinks and winning is still fun," Stevens said. "But none of it is nearly as important as the guys in the locker room."
And that's why it should come as no surprise that when Stevens addressed the team for a few brief moments before his media obligations late Monday night, he said the only thing he regretted was missing the end of senior night because he had a corneal edema that forced him to go to see an eye doctor.
"It's hard to really think about everything we've done this year," Howard said. "We're all in the moment right now."
But the numbers from the title game have to be examined, and so here they are:
Butler's defense helped contribute to UConn's 53-point total, which was the lowest for a champion since Kentucky put up 46 in 1949. But the Bulldogs' 18.8 percent shooting (12-of-64) is the lowest in NCAA tournament championship game history -- and the third-lowest in any NCAA tournament game. The 12 field goals Butler converted tied a record low that Oklahoma State put up in that 1949 loss to Kentucky. And the three 2-point field goals -- the Dogs were an almost-hard-to-believe 3-of-31 from inside the arc -- were six fewer than any other title game participant in history.
"The defense was really good, we contested shots and it felt like we were just right there, but we kept missing close shots at the rim," Howard said. "But a lot of that goes back to their defense. If we hold them to what we did [34.5 percent overall, 1-of-11 on 3s], we thought we'd have a chance to win. It just wasn't enough."
Butler did have a lead at the half after Mack buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer that made it 22-19.
Then, after Chase Stigall's 3 pushed the lead to six, something went terribly awry. The Bulldogs couldn't score. They couldn't convert inside at all, as Andrew Smith was 2-of-9 with several misses right under the basket and Howard, the player who epitomizes the work ethic of this program, was a forgettable 1-of-13. UConn had Alex Oriakhi rebounding, Jeremy Lamb converting and of course Walker controlling the ball, making it almost impossible for the Bulldogs to come back.[+] EnlargeRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesIn his final game as a collegian, Matt Howard was just 1-of-13 from the field.
"We can over-analyze this to death, but going 12-of-64 isn't going to win," Stevens said.
Howard said he had no idea the shooting percentages were that poor until he found out in the locker room.
"We couldn't get over the hump, and the shots wouldn't go in," Howard said. "But the confidence in each other never wavered. That's amazing. It just shows the resiliency of this team, even though we're struggling."
Butler's run to the title game a year ago will go down as one of the greatest in the sport. Butler took down Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State before giving Duke every ounce of effort, falling in an iconic final with Hayward's last shot hitting the rim from half court.
The Bulldogs were again improbable finalists this season, not for a lack of talent, but because Butler had not played as well during the season and had to scrap at the end just to earn a No. 8 seed. This team easily could have been beaten by Old Dominion had it not been for a Howard layup. Pitt was on the verge of a takedown before an inexplicable foul by Nasir Robinson allowed Howard to convert a winning free throw at the end of the game.
The list of wins continued with Wisconsin and Florida and then VCU.
Connecticut was ripe to be beaten, but the Bulldogs couldn't find an answer to the Huskies' length. The shooting was simply terrible, and they didn't deserve to win. This loss was more frustrating than a year ago, since the Duke game was like a free swing. This title was theirs to grab. But they weren't able to do much of anything offensively.
So they lost. But this team is not a loser.
The ride Butler has taken the sport on the past two seasons, the program's elevation to being among the top 25 in the country and the effect it has had on mid-majors everywhere is immeasurable. Coaches will stay longer at their current jobs (see Shaka Smart at VCU, Blaine Taylor at ODU, Gregg Marshall at Wichita State) for the chance to do what Butler has done.
Remember, for the generation of players who are growing up now, all they know is that Butler wins and plays for titles. That's more than most programs with name recognition can say.
"I'll always be driven to get here," Stevens said. "But it's so hard. Things have to go your way. It could be Old Dominion or Pitt standing here and maybe they played better than us, but we won the game and we were fortunate enough to be here. It was a remarkable journey that these guys have taken to get here."
Yes, it was. Let's not forget that when writing the epilogue on Butler's start to this decade.
If this happens to be the closing chapter of a storybook run, it was a good read, regardless of the ending.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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