Commentary

In March, it can all change in a moment

Originally Published: March 20, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeButler celebrates
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesAfter a wild night in D.C., Butler is just two wins away from returning to the Final Four.

All it takes is a single play.

One second. One foul. One shot. One mistake.

There are no second chances in the NCAA tournament, no do-overs, no seven-game series. There are no chances for redemption.

Win and advance. Lose and go home. Succeed and become a star. Fail and become a scapegoat.

As we saw Saturday, those moments -- those seconds when players become part of tournament lore for better or for worse -- are infinitesimally small. They can be joyful. They can be cruel.

Those moments are what make this tournament so much more than the success or failure of your bracket. They're what makes this tournament so real.

Nowhere was this more evident Saturday than in Washington, D.C. If you haven't seen the highlights yet, you have no idea what you're in for. Watch them now. Frankly, go back and watch the whole game. Butler's 71-70 win over Pittsburgh is the kind of March Madness miracle -- replete with not one but two "OH MY GOD THAT DID NOT JUST HAPPEN" final moments -- that will stay with us for years to come.

Oh, and if you happen to see a Pitt fan, give that Pitt fan a hug. There aren't many worse ways to lose.

In the game of the day, weekend, and maybe of this tournament, Pittsburgh -- the No. 1 seed in what appeared to be a favorable Southeast Regional for the favorite -- fought off a challenge from 8-seed Butler for all of 40 minutes. Thanks to a brilliant performance by Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs came out hot and refused to go away, even as Jamie Dixon's team asserted its offensive will in the second half.

By the end, Pitt had a one-point lead, possession of the ball and just 44 seconds left in the game, and all the Panthers needed to do was get a bucket (or draw a foul) and make sure Butler didn't hit a last-second shot to tie or win the game on the other end.

Instead, Butler's defense stood tall. The Panthers ran out the shot clock -- guard Ashton Gibbs' last-ditch 3 didn't leave his hand in time -- and the Bulldogs got the ball with nine seconds remaining. Coach Brad Stevens drew up a brilliant little play, a drive by Shawn Vanzant that yielded a wide-open Andrew Smith layup and a Butler one-point lead.

[+] EnlargeShelvin Mack
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesShelvin Mack's foul around midcourt was part of a bizarre finish in the Pitt-Butler game.

You know what happens next: Pittsburgh guard Gilbert Brown dribbles up the left side in search of a desperate last-second attempt, and instead is fouled -- yes, fouled -- at half court by Mack. In an instant, Mack went from hero to scapegoat, and Brown -- who sank his first free throw and tied the game at 70 -- appeared to earn his hero status.

That's when the disaster happened. Brown missed his second free throw, and as Matt Howard corralled the rebound, Pitt forward Nasir Robinson inexplicably -- what were you doing, Nasir?! -- hammered Howard across the arm with 0.8 seconds remaining. The referees called the foul. Robinson, Brown, Jamie Dixon and legions of shocked Pitt fans could only look on in horror as Howard made the shot that would put Butler over the top. Somehow -- how? -- the Bulldogs had survived again.

Yes, both were fouls. But both were the kind of fouls most referees never, ever, ever, ever call late in an elimination game. If Pitt fans were so inclined, they could argue that there is a huge difference between Mack's foul, which rode a plausible final shot out of bounds, and Robinson's, which came in a loose-ball situation 90 feet from the hoop with less than a second remaining.

Whatever your take, one thing is clear: The calls turned Pittsburgh's and Butler's fates 180 -- and then 360 -- degrees. Mack went from hot-shooting hero to unlikely bonehead. A few seconds later, Brown and Robinson did the same.

One player advanced. The others went home. All three will remember those last two seconds for the rest of their lives.

It took two hours to witness this brutal dynamic yet again.

That's when Kansas State and Wisconsin finished their nail-biting, hard-fought battle, when Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor -- two of the best guards in the nation -- became central players in a drama that further defined Saturday night's ruthless make-or-break eliminations.

For 39 minutes and 50 seconds, Pullen was peerless. The K-State guard -- who famously told the media during his team's early-season struggles that he wouldn't play in the NIT -- carried his team with 38 points, each of them more important than the last.

For 39 minutes and 50 seconds, Taylor was uncharacteristically off with his shot. He was his usual efficient self with six assists and no turnovers, but was just 2-of-16 from the field.

With 10 seconds left and Kansas State down three, Pullen used a screen to get open for the game-tying shot -- only to be fouled by an uncharacteristically careless Taylor. As Pullen stepped to the line, CBS's play-by-play announcer said he'd be "surprised" if Pullen didn't sink all three free throws. That was how good the Wildcats star had been all night.

He sank the first. He missed the second. After a make on the third, Taylor was immediately fouled and soon took two free throws of his own, both of which he promptly made. Down three again, Pullen got the ball on the wing, where he fired off another 3. For a split second, the shot appeared to be headed to the goal.

Only after a blink did television viewers realize what Pullen and Taylor immediately knew: Taylor had blocked the shot.

Wisconsin recovered and knocked down the game-sealing free throws. Taylor leapt for joy with his teammates. Pullen sagged to his bench, slumped over on the floor, and with tears in his eyes eventually fell into the arms of a teammate. His 38 points had willed his team to the finish. His last two misses had doomed them forever.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pullen
AP Photo/Matt YorkJacob Pullen was understandably emotional as his KSU career came to a close.

His brilliant career was over.

There are few things in sports as agonizing as watching a player like Pullen come to this realization. Every March, we fill out our brackets knowing this is part of the bargain: For every team that feels the rapture of victory -- for every player who ends a game like Jordan Taylor -- another must plunge into the bowels of defeat. But witnessing the latter is never easy.

Stars, scapegoats, heroes, villains. In March, all it takes is a second.

Of course, these weren't the only two games of the day, nor were they the only chances to witness fortunes made and fates sealed. We saw the same dynamic play out in Tucson, where San Diego State and Temple played a grinding defensive battle that went all the way to double overtime.

In the first OT, San Diego State forward Malcolm Thomas had a chance to end the game with a somewhat simple right-handed hook shot at the buzzer. He missed. In the second overtime, with SDSU clinging to a three-point lead, Owls forward Lavoy Allen -- who earned his star status by stifling Aztecs star Kawhi Leonard for 50 minutes -- drove to the heart of the San Diego State defense and launched a floater that would have put his team within one. Instead, in one final burst of athleticism from two exhausted legs, Thomas shot through the air and smacked Allen's shot away from the rim.

The Aztecs forward had failed to win the game in the first overtime. In the second, he made good.

Thomas moved on. So did BYU's Jimmer Fredette (36 points), Connecticut's Kemba Walker (33 points), Florida's Erving Walker (21 points), Kentucky's Brandon Knight (30 points), and Richmond's Justin Harper (19 points) and Kevin Anderson (14 points). Left behind was Morehead State's Kenneth Faried. He was joined by a variety of one-time stars in the making from Gonzaga, UCLA, Temple, West Virginia and Cincinnati.

And so another day of the tournament rolled on. Tomorrow, as the likes of Duke, Kansas, UNC, Texas, Purdue, Notre Dame, Washington, Syracuse and plenty of others take the floor, we'll see much of the same.

Reputations will be made. Stars will be born. And as the NBA likes to say, amazing will happen.

For every exuberant win, every folk hero crowned, there will be the other side, too. The losers. The defeated. The scapegoats. The dogs.

The NCAA tournament is a joyous occasion, but that joy always comes with a healthy dose of cruelty, too. The difference is never more than a split-second away.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.