The Double Bonus: Duke Wins!

Tim and John S collected themselves after last night’s brilliant National Championship to bring you this special National Championship Edition of The Double Bonus:

TIM: So John, are we allowed to breathe now?

JOHN S: I guess you can. I still haven’t. That game was the most nerve-wracking, heart-wrenching, emotionally draining game I’ve ever watched as a Duke fan. It unfolded almost like a nightmare. Butler was doing to Duke exactly what it had been doing to teams all Tournament long: Staying close and then holding them without a field goal in the final minutes. It looked like it was setting up perfectly for a Butler comeback, with Nolan Smith, our best player throughout the Tournament, and Kyle Singler, our best player in the Final Four, each clunking shots off the front of the rim, setting up not one but TWO attempts at the game-winner by Butler’s star.

And I, like so many others, thought they were both going in when they left Gordon Hayward’s hands….

TIM: Well, Duke won this game because there was one difference between it and the previous games Butler played, which is that the Blue Devils never let the Bulldogs get up two possessions. In fact, every time Butler scored to take the lead in the second half, Duke scored on the ensuing possession; the Bulldogs never had the ball with a chance to go up four.

I think that was so important because it prevented the Blue Devils from having pressurized offensive possessions. The game pressure for the entire second half was on the Bulldogs: They were the team that needed a stop or a bucket throughout the second 20 minutes. And they got that stop or bucket pretty much every time they needed it…until the end.

Gordon Hayward would have killed Tim and John S with this shot...

I, too, thought both of Hayward’s shots looked good, especially the baseline fadeaway. As he was taking that, all I could think about was Sean Singletary’s similar jumper to beat Duke in overtime in 2007–the loss that kind of derailed the Blue Devils’ season. And as that halfcourt shot is in the air, I just thought, “Either we win, or we lose in the most incredible game ever.” To be honest, if that final heave–and I hesitate to call it a heave because it was such a fundamentally sound shot–goes in, I don’t think I would’ve been mad. It would have been too unreal.

How about you?

JOHN S: Well, there are kind of two parts to your question. The first is, “What your reaction when Hayward took that shot?” And I would say that mine was pretty much equivalent to Brian Zoubek’s: First, there was utter despair when the shot looked good (Zoubek puts his head in his hands), then massive relief (his knees buckle), and then elation (he starts jumping for joy), but they followed so rapidly on one another as to be almost indistinguishable, like some weird mixture of tension, bewilderment, and relief. My reaction if it had gone in, then, probably would have just been the same emotional confusion, just without the relief at the end.

The next part of your question is, “How would you feel about that game if the shot had gone in?” You can basically restate that question as, “How would you like to be on the losing end of the greatest game ever?” The answer, probably, is that, yes, I’d rather win, and yes, a loss on that shot would have utterly wrecked me for a day or two; but your almost just happy to be a part of a game like that, especially in retrospect when emotions have cooled, no matter what the outcome is.

Which of course brings us to the next pair of questions: 1) If Hayward had hit his shot, would that have been the greatest A) Championship game ever (pretty clearly yes, I think), B) Tournament game ever (probably still yes), C) basketball game ever (possibly), and D) sporting event ever (probably not, but you can make an argument…)? And 2) Even without Hayward’s buzzer-beater, where do you think this game ranks historically?

TIM: How many different numbers and letters are you throwing at me? I’ll start with the second question just to mess with you: As is, I think this is at least the best championship game in a quarter-century, since Villanova-Georgetown in 1985, which means it’s as good as there’s been since expansion.

Would Hayward's have topped Laettner's? A double-whammy for Duke

Now, college basketball is unique among the sports in that there is generally a consensus around the two best games ever played: There is Duke-Kentucky in 1992, and there is Maryland-NC State in 1973 in that order. Whether it would have topped Duke and Kentucky comes down to how you gauge certain factors. For instance, how much more important is it that this was the National Championship and not the Regional Final? How many points does it lose by being a defensive struggle as compared to ’92’s offensive display? My answers to those questions are “very” and “not many,” so in my opinion, if that shot goes, this is probably remembered as the greatest game ever. The Butler storyline would have been just too good to be true; I mean, it would be Hoosiers to a whole other level. (Furthermore, what if we based this hypothetical ranking on Hayward’s baseline fadeaway going in and not the halfcourt shot? How much does that change the perception?)

Greatest basketball game or sporting event ever? Those things are harder to judge because there is such little consensus. What do people consider the best NBA game ever? And can you even compare this game to something like the Miracle on Ice, which was great for entirely different reasons?

Of course, for me, nothing tops Super Bowl XLII

JOHN S: First of all, the Miracle on Ice sucks. First, it’s hockey. Second, it’s the Olympics. Third, it’s famous largely for stupid, nationalistic reasons that don’t have anything to do with sports.

But ANYWAY, I tend to agree with you that the fact that this was a National Championship would place it ahead of Duke-Kentucky (again, this is if Hayward had made this last shot). As for more subjective and grander things like, best game in basketball/sports history, well, that’s obviously a tough argument to make, but it would have been hard not to put this in the conversation if that shot had fallen.*

No disrespect to the halfcourt heave, but this was prettier...

*And as for your point about fadeaway vs. halfcourt heave, I honestly don’t think it matters much. I may be unique in this, but I’ve always found halfcourt shots to be anticlimactic, since they seem so clearly lucky (especially if, like Hayward’s would have been, they are banked). Hayward’s baseline fadeaway, though, would have been so aesthetically pleasing and impressive that it would have made up for not being at the buzzer.

As it is, though, I still think this is the best National Championship game I’ve ever seen by a wide margin and, probably, the greatest Tournament game I’ve ever seen. The Illinois-Arizona Regional Final is close, but I still think this gets edge, both for being in the title game, and for the fact that it was just so close throughout.

The quality of play in this game was pretty breathtaking (as in, I literally had trouble breathing because it was so tight for 40 minutes). People who didn’t watch (what on EARTH were you doing?!) may look at the box-score and see that Hayward was 2-11, and that Nolan Smith was 5-15, and that Duke had 12 turnovers, and that Butler once again shot below 35%, and they may think it was a sloppy game. But the defense was so impressive throughout the game, and there were so few open looks and easy shots, that it was always fun to watch.

Just watching Singler’s defense on Butler’s penultimate possession should tell you everything you need to know about the game: The fact that Hayward was kept out of the paint and forced to the baseline was huge, and showed how tight Singler had been playing Butler’s best scorer all night long.

But what about you? Would this have topped Illinois-Arizona if it had happened during the Aughts?

TIM: Yeah, I think this has a good chance to top the “Games of the Teens” at the end of 2019. Illinois-Arizona had that amazing four minute stretch, but this was as tight as a game gets for 40. I mean, the largest lead was six! And that lasted for a possession! It’s not like the lead was six often; it was six once, and for less than 30 seconds. This was a one-possession game for an astonishing 30:41 of game time. Over three-quarters of the game was played within a possession.*

*You’re right about the aesthetics of Hayward’s fadeaway. If that thing swished–and it sure looked headed for a swish–it would have been as beautiful a last-second shot as we’ve ever seen.

Hard-fought does not mean sloppy

The National Championship game I compared this one to in our preview was Maryland and Indiana in 2002. I thought this would have the same kind of pace and the same kind of progression. But while that was one of those low-scoring, close sloppy games, this was as well-played a 61-59 game as you’ll see on the collegiate level. The defense was outstanding from the opening tip straight through, and you can count the number of easy baskets for each team on one hand. Ronald Nored swarmed Jon Scheyer all night, Willie Veasley hounded Kyle Singler, and Singler was all over Hayward. Furthermore, each team played excellent and disciplined help defense. Butler pretty much dropped off Lance Thomas when he was on the perimeter to give it an extra defender in the paint (or to double on screens) whereas Singler and Brian Zoubek blocked/changed numerous Bulldog shots around the basket–most noticeably Hayward’s fallaway, where Zoubek aided Singler to perfection to alter the shot.

It didn’t hurt that the officials really let them play. That allowed two very physical teams to become even more aggressive defensively, and I think the game was better for it. What were your thoughts on the officiating?

Good thing the refs let them play...

JOHN S: Well, I definitely noticed the “letting them play” quality of it and, honestly, it frustrated me at times. But it probably helped Duke more than it hurt them, and it almost certainly helped the overall quality of the game; there were never fouls that weren’t deserved (although there were a couple dumb ones on Zoubek, Plumlee, and Scheyer), and it right of them not to get overzealous on the Lance Thomas potential-flagrant (although if Hayward’s shot had gone in, I’d be ranting and raving about the refs’ cowardly refusal to call Howard’s illegal screen).

And, yeah, the small margin of this game was obvious from the start. I remember thinking, when Shelvin Mack hit his second three of the game to make the score 8-7, despite the fact that Butler had struggled shooting for the first few minutes, that this game was going to be close. I mean, I had said going in that it would be close, but at that point I pretty much kissed all chances of feeling like had comfortable lead goodbye.

What was even more impressive than Butler’s lockdown defense–which was every bit as good as we’d expected–was actually the coaching in this game. It seemed like Brad Stevens had come up with a perfect game-plan for the Bulldogs, having them space the floor and feed Matt Howard inside initially. As you hinted at, Zoubek spent a fair amount of the first half helping guys out on the perimeter, which actually was a big reason that Butler had the offensive rebounding advantage at halftime. When Howard was in foul trouble, the spacing opened up lots of driving lanes for Mack, Nored, and Veasley. Then when Duke went on that 8-0 run to get that six-point lead, Stevens immediately called timeout, and Butler went on a seven-point run of their own to take the lead back.

Coach K seemed to match Stevens move for move, though. After halftime, Duke adjusted on the glass and kept the small but tenacious combo of Nored and Veasley from outrebounding them again. And once Mack knocked down those initial threes, Duke stopped giving him room on the perimeter, and he didn’t make another all game.

Then Krzyzewski almost screwed the whole thing up by having Zoubek miss that free throw, but up until then he was pretty good, huh?

TIM: Krzyzewski’s explanation for why you miss that free throw might be the definition of specious: plausible but wrong. If you’re up one there, you miss that FT because Butler is going to take a three regardless. Up two, though, a miss brings in the chance of a loss, and I’d rather have a 90% chance of winning with a 10% chance of OT than a 95% chance of winning and 5% of OT.

And upon further review, Howard’s screen wasn’t as illegal as it looked. Did he blindside Singler? Of course. But blindsides can be legal, and there’s no way you’re making that call then.*

*Can you imagine what would have happened if Hayward launched that shot, the refs blow the whistle to call the foul on Howard, and the shot went in? American sports fans would have openly declared war on Duke.

Don't worry, Brad, Tim and John S still love you!

Stevens was fantastic yet again. The decision to lay off Thomas not only helped cut off Duke’s penetration, but allowed the Bulldogs to control the defensive glass. I thought going in early to Howard was a good idea even though it didn’t really pay off; if you get Howard into the game early and Zoubek in foul trouble early, it’s an entirely different ensuing 36 minutes. He used his timeouts wisely to quell Duke spurts (aside, I thought, from the one he took right after a Duke timeout with about five minutes left; thought he would like to have that one later). He went small a few times to get Zoubek and Thomas away from the basket and Mack, Nored, and Hayward to the hoop. And his defenders were always ready for the offensive rebound –> kickout three. I think Duke got one off all night, and Scheyer missed it.

One other thing I love about Stevens: He uses the TV timeouts to get his guys some extra rest brilliantly. There were numerous times last night and throughout the Tournament where he would take Hayward and/or Mack out just before a TV timeout to but them a few extra moments of rest. Not enough coaches do this properly.

Krzyzewski made an interesting decision fairly early in the game, which was that Mason and Miles Plumlee weren’t going to play. It was kind of the opposite of what he did in the first half against Baylor, when the Brothers Plumlee provided an offensive spark against the Bears’ 2-3. Last night, though, K was too concerned about their inconsistency on defense, and he was willing to sacrifice Lance Thomas’ offensive inadequacies to bolster his defense. The smartest things Krzyzewski did were to put Singler on Hayward for the stretch run and Zoubek on the ball for that last inbounds pass, necessitating an extra Butler timeout.*

*While the teams were setting up for that play, Stevens called Howard over to talk to him. Howard came back to the court when Thomas, who was on Howard, then walked over to Zoubek (guarding Hayward and the inbounds) to whisper something in his ear. My conjecture? Stevens saw Zoubek on Hayward and wanted something quick for his star against the taller man right off the inbounds pass, so he told Howard to pass it right back to Hayward. Thomas thought along the same lines and told Zoubek to watch that, and maybe even switch right away if it happened. It’s all moot, though, since Butler called timeout.

Add it all up, and I think you had a near-perfect finish to the best Tournament I’ve ever seen.* The great Tournaments that I remember before this year were focused on a single round–the Regional Finals in ’05, the Sweet 16 in ’06, etc. But this one, from the very first game to the last, was saturated with drama. There wasn’t a single day of the Tourney that didn’t give us an exciting game. Everyone talked about what an amazing start that first Thursday was, and it only got better.

*Even I can admit Hayward making one of those shots to win the game would have made it the “perfect finish.”

JOHN S: Yeah, I think what was truly amazing about this Tournament was how consistently great it was. After each weekend, there was a new game that I was SURE would be the defining moment of the 2010 Tournament: First it was Ali Farokmanesh’s shot; then it was Jordan Crawford’s 35-footers; now it’s Gordon Hayward’s two misses.

Remember when this was going to be the story of the Tournament?

Each of those moments were more memorable, for me at least, than anything that happened in ’06, ’07 (the worst Tournament I can remember), or ’09. And with the exceptions of the Mario Chalmers shot and everything Stephen Curry did in 2008, I don’t think anything from the last four years was as good as the fifth-most exciting thing that happened this year.

We kept hearing this year that there was no “dominant team” and that this Tournament was proving how  level the field was. Well, if not having a dominant team means that we get to trade teams like Florida in 2007 and UNC in 2009 for tournaments like this, then I’ll take it. Even if a Butler win would have been the “perfect ending,” watching this Duke team get better as the Tournament went on and continually surprise me with its resiliency was a lot more interesting to me (and not ONLY because I’m a Duke fan) than watching the Gators and Tar Heels pull off what, in retrospect, seemed inevitable. How much fun can winning the Tournament by a combined margin of victory of 121 points (UNC’s total last year) be? Wouldn’t you rather root for Ali Farokmanesh?

The only problem with this year’s Tournament, really, is that things that would define some other Tournaments, like Murray State’s buzzer-beater and even Ohio’s upset of Georgetown will inevitably get lost in memories of Cornell, the K-State-Xavier game, and Gordon Hayward.

TIM: Yeah, Danero Thomas and Ish Smith and Omar Samhan and the Robert Morris players all have to be pissed. In most other years, they’d remain a part of the Tournament’s narrative. This year, they’re barely footnotes now, and the Tournament ended last night.

All this is to say, when ESPN is doing its 40 for 40 documentary series in 10 years, I expect the one on the 2010 NCAA Tournament to be one of those special, two-hour films.

One last question for you: We each had Duke in our initial Final Four, but at what point did you think the Blue Devils could actually win this thing? Was there a moment during the season? Or did it not come until late in the Tournament, oh say, when Kentucky lost to West Virginia (as it did for me)?

JOHN S: It was more of a very gradual thing for me. I only really started thinking about it when they made the Regional Final and the other 1-seeds started looking less unbeatable. I always knew that how far they would get in the Tournament would depend largely on the draw they got. For most of the year I thought a favorable draw as a 2-seed would get us to the Elite 8, where we’d lose to a team like Syracuse or Kansas. Then Villanova dropped off and Robbie Hummel got injured, and I realized Duke could be a #1 seed and probably get to the Final Four with a weak 2. When the brackets were announced, I had us in the National Championship, though I hoped that someone else would do the dirty work of beating Kentucky.

Dare we say...."Repeat"?

So basically, the idea of Duke winning it all went, for me, from fantasy to remote possibility to outside chance to foreseeable to likely happened in very slow steps. I only really started thinking about it when Kentucky lost, and even then I consciously avoided referring to Duke as “the favorite” or discounting the other three teams.

Now, though, all I can think about are our odds of repeating next year…

TIM: …and maybe a rematch?

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by NPI on April 6, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    Can you please discuss what are the odds of either Scheyer of Singler (if he stays next year) having a jersey retired?

    Reply

  2. Posted by doc on April 6, 2010 at 9:19 PM

    I remember the Maryland – NC State game well – it was nerve-wracking and of course the Duke-Kentucky game has its place. But for all out intensity right from start to finish, this was the greatest game I have ever seen with 2 top notch teams. The better team won and Zoubs played a large role with his intimidation, particularly on the looping shot that Hayward took. His development was the key to Duke’s success this year. It’s hard to believe as he is so lacking in certain talents, but they are a much more physical team when the Zoubmeister is on the floor. Singler played an amazing game, Scheyer was good, Smith was a bit sloppy, but Butler’s pressure defense will do that to players. All and all – it was just plain fun to watch. I would put the game in the top 5 sporting events I have ever watched on TV. Also, I thought Nance and Kellogg were excellent as announcers.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Philip on April 6, 2010 at 9:33 PM

    Scheyer will not get his jersey retired because he never one a National POY award nor did he set an NCAA record. Unless Singler stays and accomplishes one of these things, he will not het his number retired either.

    Reply

  4. Posted by John S on April 6, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    Well, winning National POY or setting an NCAA record is a pretty arbitrary standard, and not one that has been followed so far. After all, Grant Hill and Mike Gminski, to name two, didn’t meet those, and they aren’t particularly controversial inclusions in the rafters.

    Even so, Scheyer’s candidacy is rather weak. Even Shelden Williams, a First Team All-American his senior year, has a better resume, and he probably shouldn’t be up there himself.

    Singler, though, has a better shot, though it is largely dependent on what he does next year. If he returns to school and does, say, two of the following, then I see him getting in: A) wins ACC Player of the Year, B) Passes Christian Laettner’s career points total for third all-time at Duke (which would put him at 6th all-time ACC) C) is a National POY finalist, D) leads Duke back to the Final Four. Obviously these criteria are not independent of each other and, if he is the best player on a Duke team that–knock on wood–repeats as champions, then he will almost certainly be up there.

    Reply

  5. Posted by doc on April 7, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    I agree with John – Singler has a chance if he comes back and has a dominating year and brings Duke back to the Final Four. He was the Outstanding Player in the Final Four this year and that’s a big deal. Scheyer – no chance.

    Reply

  6. […] the weekend, it now seems like forever ago that Duke won the National Championship. Rest assured, we at NPI are still celebrating, though maybe not as wildly as they did in Cameron Indoor Stadium last Monday. Joe Posnanski put […]

    Reply

  7. […] team didn’t even make a basket in like the final few minutes, and then we went an anointed that one of the greatest games ever, too. And the same with that low-scoring Super Bowl a few years […]

    Reply

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