NEW ORLEANS — In this, the most unpredictable of NCAA tournaments, the lone constant is that things — improbable, magical things — will go right for Butler and leave you speechless. Saturday’s Elite Eight game against Florida did not hinge on one substitution. Games never do. The overtime win that sent the Bulldogs back to the Final Four hinged on so many elements, particularly hustle plays on the glass and defensive stops at the end of regulation and OT, but the success of one substitution was the hardest to fathom.
Nine minutes and two seconds left, Bulldogs down 51-42 to Florida, their season slipping away, coach Brad Stevens walked down the bench in the direction of a freshman point guard from Indianapolis, Chrishawn Hopkins, who had played a grand total of seven minutes since Jan. 16. He played one minute in a Horizon League tournament rout of Milwaukee, and a few garbage seconds at the end of their Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin. In the 17 games that preceded this one, he was listed as a “DNP” in the box score 14 times. That stands for Did Not Play. Hopkins was so irrelevant that he warranted no mention in Florida’s scouting report and had no prior warning that he might be used against the Gators.
“Coach came over and looked at me, and I felt my heart beat real fast,” Hopkins said. “He said, ‘Hop, go get him,’ and I knew my time had come.”
Why throw such an inexperienced freshman to the wolves? Butler, which outlasted the Gators 74-71 to win the Southeast Region, had been struggling to break down the 2-3 zone that Florida had switched to early on — and stuck with for much of the game. Hopkins was strong off the dribble in practice, where he’s been a season-long scout-teamer, impersonating the likes of Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor and Cleveland State’s Norris Cole. Hopkins had played those roles so well in March that he planted the idea in the back of Stevens’ mind the kid might have value in an actual game. The 34-year-old coach has a history of making unforeseen substitutions; in the Elite Eight last year, he inserted freshman center Andrew Smith, who had yet to play a minute in that NCAA tournament, and watched him play 12 minutes that changed the game against Kansas State.
In went Hopkins. Within two minutes, he received the kick-out of an offensive rebound from Smith, drove into the middle of the floor, looked off his defender to the left corner, then whipped a pinpoint pass to Matt Howard on the block for a layup. Florida’s lead shrunk to seven. Thirty seconds later, Hopkins stepped up and calmly launched a three-pointer — his 12th attempt of the season — that swished and cut the Gators’ lead to four. The result was suddenly in doubt, and Florida began to play tight. Hopkins was subbed out for defensive stopper Ronald Nored with five minutes left; Butler tied the game at 3:03, then again with 30 seconds left; then in overtime, took its first lead since the 17:53 mark of the first half, and held on to make history as the first mid-major to reach consecutive Final Fours. Hopkins did not decide the game; he just altered its momentum. No one except the Bulldogs coaches had seen it coming.
“Just another trick up the sleeve of Brad Stevens,” his coordinator of basketball operations, Darnell Archey, said in the locker room. Behind him was a whiteboard, on which had been scrawled, in giant red marker, the characters “F4.”
Is this whole thing a trick up the sleeve of college basketball’s young wizard of the sideline, who’s reached two Final Fours in four years at the helm? If you thought what you witnessed last season, with Butler reaching the Final Four and subsequent title game against Duke as a No. 5 seed, then coming within Gordon Hayward’s near-miss Hail Mary of a national championship, was stunning, what’s happened in 2011 is on another level. The Butler-Duke epic, staged on home turf at Lucas Oil Stadium, could have gone down as the greatest moment in the history of the Bulldogs’ program, and they might have been fine with it. Mid-majors so rarely make the Final Four — there was George Mason in 2006, and before that, Penn and Indiana State in 1979 — and even less often the title game. But a Final Four repeat? The last four teams to do that are North Carolina, UCLA and Florida and Michigan State. Those aren’t No. 8 seeds from the Horizon League, they’re major-conference powerhouses. Butler is in their league now. Don’t ever again call it a Cinderella.
Stevens stood on the court on Saturday night and someone asked him if what the Bulldogs just accomplished was unbelievable. “Believable is a better term,” he said. “It’s a more positive term, it makes you live life a little bit better, it makes you a bit more thankful for the opportunities and take advantage of them.” But outside the locker room later, even he admitted the way the Bulldogs made it to Houston, through wild late-game scrambles and inexplicable fouls and a bit of luck, was crazy. “It still kind of blows me away,” he said. “We barely beat [No. 9] Old Dominion, barely beat [No. 1] Pitt, barely beat [No. 2] Florida, [No. 4] Wisconsin we kind of let back in the game. … These guys are like some version of the Cardiac Kids.”
Stevens did not want to take credit for this moment. He said he was thankful for the character of those Cardiac Kids — their will, their desire, their belief in their ability to keep pulling off upsets in March — because of what he told Florida coach Billy Donovan after the game: “You outcoached me to death.” The Gators’ zone and its ability to pound the ball in to center Vernon Macklin — who had 25 points in 24 minutes, mostly on hook shots, before fouling out — had put Butler off-kilter, and on its heels midway through the second half. The Bulldogs gave up far too many easy baskets to Macklin and two-guard Kenny Boynton, and failed for long stretches to slice up the 2-3 defense with penetration. They nearly let the score get out of reach.
But Stevens and his assistants had done some shrewd things with the game plan. He studied Florida’s kenpom.com numbers and because they were a top-25 offensive rebounding team, put an emphasis on keeping their big men sealed off the glass. The Gators finished with only eight offensive boards (and a 25.0 OReb%) while Butler had 16 (and a 37.8 OReb%). He and assistant Micah Shrewsberry, who handled the scout of Florida, studied their abundant ball-screening actions and decided that while they’d hedge on Boynton and Chandler Parsons when dribbling off screens, they would trap point guard Erving Walker in order to prevent him splitting defenders. Walker was repeatedly forced to give up the ball, and when he did take shots, they were challenged; he went just 1-of-10 from the field, and 1-of-7 from long range, and finished with eight points.
The low moment of the Bulldogs’ season had come on Feb. 3, when they lost their third Horizon League game in a row, to Youngstown State, a team that would finish 9-21. Stevens stood up in front of the locker room there and told his players the same thing he’d said after the previous two losses: “I’ve got to get better.” Reserve senior guard Zach Hahn sensed this was not enough and stood up and said, with passion, “No, we’ve got to get better.”
His teammates began to follow suit, one by one, making their vows. They had to change then or their season would fall apart. They had to start playing like their old selves, or perhaps beyond their old selves, because this was not the same team as in 2010. They have no NBA Lottery Pick, like Gordon Hayward, and no versatile glue guy, like Willie Veasley. They rallied to go on a 12-game winning streak to reach the Elite Eight against Florida, a game that would require everyone to make contributions that were beyond themselves.
Hahn had been 2-of-20 from long range since Feb. 15, but he sat on the bench on Saturday sizing up the Gators’ 2-3 zone, figuring he could make an impact from long range. Stevens has called Hahn a “fearless” shooter who quickly erases misses from his mind. With the Bulldogs down 10 at the at seven-minute mark in the first half, 25-15, and mired in an 0-for-7 slump from beyond the arc, Hahn entered the game and drilled a pair of treys, the second of which cut Florida’s lead to two. Butler went into halftime down only one, at 33-32.
Hopkins wasn’t the only freshman who made a major impact. Khyle Marshall came off the bench to score 10 points and grab an amazing seven offensive rebounds, the biggest coming with 3:33 left in overtime, shortly after he was inserted into the game following Smith’s fifth foul. Marshall flew at the glass to grab a missed jumper by Shelvin Mack, missed a putback, grabbed another board, and scored while drawing the fifth foul on Macklin, the Gators’ most important player. After the whistle, Marshall, who’d fallen to the floor, sat up and thumped his chest three times, screaming.
Nored, who picked the freshman up off the floor and reminded him to focus putting proper arc on the ensuing free throw (which Marshall made to give Butler a 65-62 lead), had been demoted out of the starting lineup this season. Nored’s offseason leg surgeries kept him off the court and limited his development after serving as the team’s defensive stopper in the 2010 tournament, but he’s returned to a major role at the right time. He was the one guarding Walker on his final three-point attempt, which was off the mark. (“I ran at him and just screamed and hoped he missed it,” Nored said.) A 62.8 percent free-throw shooter, he hit four straight in overtime to maintain Butler’s lead. And, just like last March, he served as the Bulldogs’ spiritual leader in the pregame huddle, gathering them in the tunnel next to the court and saying the following:
“The three regional games that we’ve won against Syracuse, Kansas State and Wisconsin, we’ve gone out and just jumped on them. Just jumped on them. That’s what it takes to win at this level. Let’s come out and set this tone. They want to be more physical? They’re not going to be more physical than us — it ain’t happening today. All right, let’s get to Houston, baby. Let’s go.”
Mack seemed particularly inspired by Nored’s speech. He came out of the gate firing, scoring Butler’s first eight points, giving his team an 8-4 lead. Mack had a chance to be the goat of this tournament for Butler, after his unexplainable foul of Pitt’s Gilbert Brown with a one-point lead and 1.8 seconds left in the second round. Had Brown made both his free throws, the Bulldogs would’ve been watching the Sweet 16 on TV. But on Saturday, Mack was the scoring hero of the Elite Eight with a game-high 27 points. He was responsible for Butler’s final five points in overtime, including a dagger three at the 1:21 mark over forward Patric Young, who’d switched onto him after a ball screen. Mack’s favorite hobby is dominating teammates with Kobe Bryant in NBA 2K11 on XBox 360, and when he hits virtual daggers with virtual Kobe, he likes to say, “Big players make big plays.” Mack envisions himself as that kind of player for Butler. Against Florida, he lived up to his axiom.
And then there was Howard, the man with the ball in his hands at the end of tourney wins over Old Dominion (a game-winning putback), Pitt (game-winning free throws) and Wisconsin (game-icing free throws). When Florida was down 72-71 with the ball and 29.2 seconds left, it ran a handoff play for Boynton on the left wing. His three-point attempt bounced off to the right, and it looked as if Gators forward Alex Tyus, who had 17 rebounds in the Sweet 16 win over BYU, might come down with the ball. But Howard, as he always does, got in the mix, knocking it free, then corralling it on the floor and forcing a held-ball situation with 13.9 seconds left. The possession arrow was in favor of Butler, and Butler would never relinquish its lead.
“That dude just wins,” Stevens said of Howard, “and there is nothing else to it.”
So there were the Bulldogs again, cutting down the nets on the way to another Final Four, college basketball’s darlings — or maybe co-darlings, depending on what VCU does Sunday — for the second year in a row.
Did you expect this to happen? Nored said he did; even back in Washington during the first weekend, he talked about wanting another call from President Barack Obama. After last year’s title game, Obama made the unprecedented move of calling both Duke and Butler. It had been that amazing of a finish. “We want the real call this time,” Nored said in the tunnel. Thirty minutes earlier, on the court, he’d been less composed, donning his Final Four hat and yelling, “We’re back! We’re back!” to anyone with in earshot.
Few predicted that Butler, a No. 8 seed that was 14-9 on Feb. 3, and didn’t even win the Horizon League regular season outright, would be in this place. To get here, the Bulldogs needed to rediscover how to defend. They found their way in the rest of February and early March, and now they have supreme belief in their ability to lock down at the end of games. They survived possessions at the end of regulation and OT where Florida had the ball with the chance to take the lead. Said assistant coach Matt Graves, “Whoever we play next week, we’ll take a one-point lead, they can have the ball with 30 seconds to go, and we’ll be very confident no matter who we’re playing, that our guys can get a stop.”
Still, despite that confidence and a swagger that wasn’t there in 2010 — Mack went as far as to do the Gator chomp in the direction of Bulldogs fans after snipping his piece of the net — there is an underlying feeling that Butler’s Final Four journey is even more surreal the second time around. Last year’s appearance in Indianapolis was a hometown fairytale, all but the ending; this year’s appearance in Houston comes with no perfect storyline and no perfect explanation.
Graves and his fellow assistant coaches, Shrewsberry and Terry Johnson, retreated to a side room off the main locker room once the team finished its traditional Butler War Song in celebration of the victory. The coaches took seats on folding chairs and looked around at each other, barely able to speak for five minutes. Overwhelmed by euphoria and shock, all they could do was laugh and shake their heads, mustering only a few “wows” over what had transpired. They’d be arriving at Reliant Stadium in a few days, with another shot at the title, another shot for Butler to make history as a mid-major champion.
When Shrewsberry regained his voice, after the media was allowed in, he said, “It’s truly unbelievable, the ride these guys have taken us on for the past two years. I mean, back-to-back Final Fours …”
He trailed off. He was at a loss again, searching for words: “What do you say? What do you say?“