- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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On April 5, 2010, with a national title on the line, Duke and Butler sparred in Indianapolis for 40 minutes. In the end, Gordon Hayward's last-second, half-court heave missed by inches. Duke won the national title. Butler ended its storybook run with a real-world ending.
Eight months later, on Dec. 4, the two teams met in New Jersey. Butler played Duke closer than most expected, but the Blue Devils -- helped in part by some debilitating cramps from Butler guard Shelvin Mack -- pulled away late en route to an 82-70 win.
On Feb. 3 of this year, Duke was 20-2. Butler was 14-9. That ninth loss came on Feb. 3, when Butler, in the ugliest moment of what to that point had been a shockingly ugly year, lost to Youngstown State -- yes, last-place Youngstown State. It was the fifth Horizon League loss of the season for coach Brad Stevens. The Butler of 2010 was nowhere to be found.
In other words, if someone hopped in a DeLorean, set the clock to Feb. 3, 2011, and told you that Butler would outlast Duke in the 2011 NCAA tournament, you would have had that person committed to a highly respected psychiatric facility. And not just because of the time-travel talk.
Just seven weeks later, well, that's where we are. Butler is in the Elite Eight. Duke is not. In case you needed another reminder that college basketball predictions are a foolhardy enterprise -- not that you did -- you won't do much better than Thursday night's simultaneous Sweet 16 action.
Perhaps it was fitting -- or ironic, or coincidental, or all three -- that these two teams' trajectories led them to this night. Duke rolled through much of the regular season as one of the national title favorites -- if not the favorite. Butler struggled from its opening game (a blowout loss at Louisville).
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski found himself replacing his star freshman point guard (the injured Kyrie Irving) by shifting All-American Nolan Smith to the point, with brilliant results. Stevens found himself trying to replace Hayward, a lottery pick, and Willie Veasley, last season’s senior defensive stalwart, with a batch of marginal recruits.
But you wouldn't have been able to tell Thursday night. Butler handled an ice-cold Wisconsin offense with minimal issues, advancing the small Indiana school to its second straight Elite Eight. At the exact same time, thousands of miles west -- hooray for metaphors! -- Duke was waylaid by an athletic, aggressive, unintimidated Arizona team led by the de facto star of this NCAA tournament, forward Derrick Williams.
It's worth spending a moment reflecting on what Arizona -- not to mention Williams -- did to Duke at the Honda Center. It was, frankly, remarkable. The Wildcats attacked and attacked and attacked. They never relented. Williams was unstoppable inside and out, and his midair acrobatics were beautiful to behold.
Williams made three plays that punctuated this effort. Two of them were face-melting dunks (one in the first half, one in the second) and one was a Jimmer-esque deep 3 with the clock running out before halftime. Williams was unstoppable. Arizona was unstoppable. (To the tune of 1.36 points per possession, no less.) And for the first time in awhile, the Blue Devils looked generally rattled.
The nature of Duke's loss was remarkable, but really, the dual outcomes were the most surprising part of this night. Except for the last few minutes of Butler's win over Wisconsin, in which the Badgers made a last-ditch comeback attempt, those outcomes were apparent.
Duke was getting blown out. Butler was moving on.
If you called that, you're a genius. Or a savant. Or you have a really good sense of quasi-irony. Or whatever.
Chances are you, like pretty much everyone else in the world, didn't see this one coming. You didn't see it coming last year. You didn't see it coming in December. You didn't see it coming in February. You didn't see it coming yesterday.
But, yep, here we are. A pair of parallel seasons: one ending, one continuing. Another shocking upset. Another masterful postseason performance by Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.
Another day in the NCAA tournament, where nothing -- nothing -- comes quite as advertised.