March’s True Madness: Butler, Gonzaga Bulldogs Miss Razor-Thin Shots At Glory
After hour upon hour of blowout basketball that brought revelry to places like Ann Arbor and East Lansing but induced yawns across the rest of the nation, the quartet of Marquette, Butler, Wichita State and Gonzaga stepped up to save Saturday. We got a wild ending with the Golden Eagles advancing and then the “big” upset the day was craving, even though the Zags and Shockers were much closer in quality than their eight-seed spread suggested. The dose of madness after a run of competitive badness was exhilarating, but the finishes of those two games also underscore just how variable success in March can be.
Butler coach Brad Stevens is well renowned for his inbounds play success, and he once again showed why against Marquette. With the Bulldogs down four with just over five seconds left, he inserted Emerson Kampen, who hadn’t yet played in the tournament. Why? Because Kampen is the Bulldogs’ best long inbounds passer. He proceeded to throw an 85-foot dart, right on the money, that led to a quick layup. It was an exceptional play under any circumstances, and especially these.
After Marquette threw away the ensuing inbounds pass, the Bulldogs, remarkably, were still in business and Stevens gleefully dug back into his bag of inbounds tricks. Everyone on Twitter assumed Butler would at least tie the game, and more likely stick a game-winning three. According to Jeremiah Johnson (@JJFOX59SPORTS), an Indianapolis TV reporter, Stevens said afterward that the Bulldogs were given both a play to run against man-to-man defense and another one to run against zone. They were totally prepared. So what happened? The Bulldogs got confused by Marquette’s defense and ended up running the wrong play. It blew up, they barely got a shot off, and the Golden Eagles advanced. Oh, by the way, Buzz Williams also spends an inordinate amount of time on inbounds plays. He won this encounter and moves on.
Then everyone’s focus switched to the Gonzaga game, where the Zags had taken a six-point lead on the seemingly fading Shockers. Gonzaga was crushing Wichita State on the glass and seemed like it was in fairly decent control. A team that seemed to be feeling the pressure to live up to its No. 1 seed was starting to find its footing. The Sweet 16 was beckoning, and while those games would carry their own pressure, especially since the next foe would be Mississippi or La Salle, it would be more rooted in competition instead of perception.
So what happened? The Shockers, a 33 percent three-point shooting team for the season, went unconscious for a seven-minute span. Tekele Cotton (33.9 percent on threes) ripped a triple to bring the Shockers back within four. Cleanthony Early (29.8 percent) did the same on the following possession. The next trip down, it was Ron Baker’s (30.9 percent) turn. Bang, one-point game. Carl Hall made a jumper. Baker made two free throws to give Wichita State the lead. Then he nailed another three and the Shockers led by four. After a couple of Gonzaga free throws, Fred Van Vleet (42.1 percent, but on just 38 attempts) stuck the dagger in with yet another three-ball, this one highly contested, and tacked on two more free throws on the trip after that.
Nine consecutive possessions down the stretch yielded 23 points. It was absolutely sick. Wichita State finished the game 14-of-28 from the arc and the Bulldogs were sent packing, once again considered failures on the biggest stage. Instead of saluting a good team that played an impossibly great stretch of basketball in a huge spot, the story will be that Gonzaga choked.
This is what March is all about. Drama. Pressure. Individual moments that decide not only games, but reputations and legacies. But as today’s two good games showed, the margin between greatness and gackness is extremely thin. That goes double for a season like this, where every team has proven beatable. Marquette is on its way to a third straight Sweet 16, so everyone will forget Davidson’s cave-in (and Vander Blue’s heroics) in the final minute in the Round of 64. The Golden Eagles were dead, and yet here they are, moving on to Washington, D.C. They, winners of two games by three points, are clutch, and Gonzaga, victimized by outlier three-point shooting, is a bunch of gaggers. Or so the narrative will go.
Maybe both sets of Bulldogs shouldn’t have put themselves in these spots? After all, we’re pretty certain Michigan is better than VCU, at least when the two are matched up. Louisville has done nothing so far to stanch the tide of national title predictions. The Fighting Izzos are looking like their normal March selves. Arizona has found its mojo (and a fortunate draw so far) at the right time of the year. That’s fair, but many teams, including future national champions, find themselves right on the brink at least once in the dance. Butler’s own run to the 2011 title game came by the grace of a crazy ending in the Round of 32 against Pitt. Tyus Edney’s “Yeah, baby” dash against Missouri in 1995 is immortal because of the four wins that came after. We nearly had Davidson in the 2008 Final Four. Instead, Kansas swiped a national title from Memphis a week and a day later.
We see every year how much can change in one sequence, one play, one second, but March Judgment is passed, quickly and harshly, especially in these days where social media and knockout tournaments collide. Just realize two worthy teams are going home tonight, because of one inbounds play defended and one late barrage of jump shots. Neither would have been a different team tomorrow had those things broken their way.