Thursday, March 25, 2010
Forget everything you knew ... again
By Eamonn Brennan
Butler celebrates an unexpected victory over Syracuse and Brandon Triche.
Really, it's our own fault. We should have known.
After four days of basketball that gave us a dozen thrilling games, a handful of Cinderellas, and one of the most shocking upsets of all time, we, the college basketball-watching masses, should have taken a long collective look in the mirror and admitted the cold, hard truth: We don't know anything. Instead, we went with what we thought we knew. Syracuse was too good. Butler didn't match up. If any game was ripe for a Sweet 16 upset, it was Saint Mary's-Baylor, or Cornell-Kentucky.
We were wrong. Again.
Butler wasn't blown out. It wasn't exposed by the bigger, badder, more athletic Orange. Quite the opposite: The Bulldogs came out of the gate hot, rode what looked to be a definitive Syracuse run, turned the game around in the last two minutes, and completely altered the look of the 2010 NCAA tournament. Again.
Syracuse will be kicking themselves for the loss, not only because Jim Boeheim's team was clearly the more talented, but also because outside of the first 10 minutes, Butler didn't even play all that well. The Bulldogs shot 40 percent from the field and 25 percent from behind the arc, 10 percentage points worse than their season average. If you had bet Syracuse fans that Butler would make one of every four 3-pointers it shot over that Orange zone, would score 63 points, and would win ... well, I'm betting Syracuse fans take that bet.
Masochist Syracuse partisans -- and guard Andy Rautins -- will especially obsess over the final five minutes of the game, when Syracuse had built a four-point lead and looked primed to finally assert its superiority. Then Rautins turned the ball over, Ronald Nored hit a 3 to cut the lead to one, Matt Howard scored inside, Rautins turned the ball over again, Willie Veasley hit a 3, and then bam: 58-54 Butler, just like that. Butler extended its lead to 61-54, and Syracuse never got close enough to pull even again.
It was a brilliant upset, not only because Butler looked the better team for much of the night -- credit Butler's defense, which was ferocious -- but because the Bulldogs flipped the script when it mattered most. They didn't cede to the athletic team running at them on every possession. They didn't shake their heads at what looked to be a focused Syracuse team closing the door down the stretch. They regrouped, made two huge shots and closed out a win that was rightfully theirs. You had to have seen the game to believe it -- and also to realize how unlikely it all seemed.
Tonight's other early game pitted one of the hottest teams in the country, Washington, against a West Virginia team reeling from the loss of its starting point guard and a not particularly pretty performance in a win over Missouri in the second round. West Virginia was still the favored team -- too much talent, too much height -- but the consensus had shifted. Washington could win this thing. West Virginia is vulnerable.
That consensus wasn't anywhere near as codified as Syracuse-over-Butler, but it existed. West Virginia proved it wrong.
Without Darryl Bryant, the Mountaineers weren't exactly careful with the ball -- they committed 23 turnovers and looked truly sloppy doing so -- but what West Virginia lacked in care it more than made up for with a smothering 1-3-1 zone defense and a typically prodigious number of offensive rebounds (18, to be exact). Washington was more than happy to help the cause, giving the ball away 22 times; it's an obvious point, but committing 23 turnovers isn't that big of a deal when your opponent gives all but one of them right back.
That said, this turnover thing is a concern for the Mountaineers going forward. West Virginia has won this year thanks to offensive rebounding and low turnover counts. If this is the way WVU will take care of the ball without Truck Bryant, well, that's a problem. Rather than a trend, maybe it was merely a symptom of an intentionally ugly, grind-it-out game with a pressing, harassing team. West Virginia, which will likely play Kentucky in the Elite Eight, won't have time to find out.
The real story from tonight's first session wasn't that West Virginia won ugly, though. It was that Butler won at all. It's official: Doubt Butler -- or any other supposed underdog in this tournament -- at your own peril. We ought to learn our lesson.