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The Contented Sigh of a Champion

Duke University is the Champ. It’s a result that feels so strange, so pleasantly unexpected that it’s hard to know what to write. Coach K’s first words as they interviewed him on the podium that he paraphrased again many times “I can’t believe we are the Champs.” There will be time to put proper perspective on Monday’s epic title tilt as the exclamation point of what was collectively one of the best NCAA tourneys in recent memory. There will be time to talk about legacy - legacy of this Duke team and the 4th title. There will be time for the Haters to rage, and for cooler heads to respond. But today I have only a warm, wry smile of contentment.

Its a good thing that the NCAA tournament doesn’t follow the NFL pattern of 2 weeks worth of buildup for the title game. Because the Blue Devils might have been convinced by the media hype that they could just show up and collect the trophy on their height advantage alone. Like a lot of people, I thought going in that size would be the deciding factor between two pretty evenly matched teams. But perhaps the conventional wisdom was just looking for a reason to doubt Butler again. Yes Duke was the much bigger team, but Butler had already proven capable of overcoming that disadvantage in the tournament. They’d done it with A) trumping size with effort to out-rebounding a much bigger opponent (ask Kansas State) or B) using superior free throw shooting and team D to off-set those extra possessions (ask Michigan State or Murray State).

Maybe the ‘stache’ was thowing off his shot?In the first half Butler opted for option A - out-rebounding Duke 24 to 17 and absolutely killing the Devils on the offensive glass. They also looked like they were trying to go after Duke inside to get Zoubs into foul trouble. But Matt Howard, who’d had his bell rung in the semi-finals, never looked quite right. He missed several chip-shots early that he normally makes, and missed 3 of his first 4 free throws. I didn’t see the Butler shot chart, but the number of attempts they collectively missed from inside 7 feet accounted for a good chunk of the 66% of the shots they missed. Butler was able to stand toe to toe with Duke in the first half largely because of some unexpected bench production. Fifteen of the thirty-two points came from non starters, including 10 big ones from seldom heard from senior Avery Jukes (what a great name!) who knocked down two huge threes to off-set being blocked by the rim on a dunk attempt.

For Duke it was an odd first half. They weren’t getting offensive rebounds - but that was largely because aside from mediocre 3pt shooting (3-10) they didn’t miss a lot. From 2 point range Duke was 10-16. Four of those came in the opening minutes’ butterflies and one was a desperate last second shot by Nolan Smith. They’d played their reliably good defense - holding Butler to 34% from the field. They hadn’t turned the ball over a lot, but they had shot poorly from the free-throw line (4-9 including the front end of a one and one). So how was Duke not further ahead? The main reason was Butler’s 12 offensive boards that had given them 12 more attempts. So it was Duke that was actually fortunate not to be down at the break.

In the second half there was quite a reversal of the the story lines, but the scoreboard remained close. Butler who hadn’t been able to get to the line in the first stanza went 12-14 in the second half. The Bulldogs had ruled the glass early got only 9 total rebounds in the second half - and four of those were in the last 70 seconds. Butler got zero 2nd half bench points after the 15 they had previously. The only consistent things for both teams were two occurrences that often go hand in hand: good defense and poor shooting. Both teams couldn’t break the 40% FG Mendoza line and struggled from distance. Butler only had the lead for 30 seconds, but every time Duke pushed the lead to 5-6 points Butler was there to reel them back in. The fact that the Bulldogs went almost 9 minutes without a FG (and only 1 in 13 minutes) and were still in a position to win the game speaks to their determination and grit. Up 5 with three plus minutes to play, Duke could not seal the deal. They had 2 turnovers, missed a gimmie layup, and then an open look from Singler that he rushed and missed badly while falling away. (maybe it just didn’t fit his personal requirement to needing a 8.5 degree of difficulty to be able to hit it) But perhaps most surprising was the consecutive defensive lapses that gave Howard 2 uncontested layups to cut the lead to one.

As Butler called its final timeout to organize themselves for a final shot, I was already thinking ahead to which Duke player was going to have the shot they would need to reclaim the lead. But in the end it came down to the all the things that transformed this Duke team into a Champion:

  • Great Defense: Duke didn’t play its patented pressure D this year, but collectively played great team containment. They made it hard for Butler to get the ball in for those waining seconds and then Kyle Singler played some great individual (greatly under-rated) D on Gordon Hayward keeping him contained. As Hayward drove to the baseline he got a good screen but there was great help from…
  • The Emerging Zoubekraken: It’s been talked about a lot, but his stunning emergence from injury-riddled head scratcher to absolutely dominant force in the paint was the one change that turned this team into a title contender. Zoubs slid out to stay with Hayward and turn his attempt into a very difficult shot. It wasn’t off by much, but it did hit the back rim setting up an important…
  • Opportunistic Rebound(ing): Usually turnovers, free throws and good long distance shooting are the Blue Devil recipe to overcoming the battle of the boards. But this year the four man rotation of the Bigguns (plus Singler) has been great on the glass. Zoubek’s good D left him in good rebounding position to grab the miss and get fouled.

Zoubs, a 55% FT shooter, calmly swishes the first shot. Then, all due respect to Coach K, I did not agree with deliberately missing the second free throw with 3.6 seconds on the clock. The best strategy to me is make the shot and set yourself up at worst for a tie. Or better yet foul as soon as the opposition gets close to mid court. But K has never been one to foul in that kind of scenario. It worked out because Hayward’s last second heave was about 6 inches too long. If that shot goes in, can you imagine the fuel for the Hater-ade Bonfire? Wow. But sports are games of inches. To the outside world, six inches on a 45 foot shot transforms Coach K from an ultimate goat to in the discussion of best college coach ever. The shot looked good in the air and all Devil fans took a huge inhale. And as it bounced dangerously off the rim there was a huge sigh of relief. The collective exhale from Durham must have been a rush of wind to rival a hurricane. Or maybe that was just the rush of wind from the Championship Bonfires.