History In The Making
INDIANAPOLIS -- Let's get a few things straight right away. First off, Butler is not a Cinderella. Secondly, Duke is not the evil program that many make it out to be.
With that said, this national championship game still offers about as much intrigue as any one game possibly could, but some of the hype surrounding the supposed David versus Goliath matchup is, well, just that -- hype.
No. 1 seed Duke, seeking its fourth national title, will face No. 5 seed Butler at 9:21 ET Monday night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Historically, is Butler a Cinderella? Sure. If you compare the histories of these two programs then yes, you have the mythical mismatch that everyone seems to be talking about. But, if you look at what Butler has done this year, this postseason success is far from a fairy tale.
"I don't think at all that we're a Cinderella," Butler forward Avery Jukes said. "I think just because it's our first time that we would be considered a Cinderella, even though I think we've proven ourselves."
Butler has won 25 in a row and will take the longest winning streak into a national championship game since Duke brought in a 32-game streak in 1999. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP poll -- only two spots behind Duke -- and they've rattled off an impressive 33-4 record since. Somehow, Cinderella doesn't seem to apply.
On the other hand, Duke is one of the more reviled teams in the country. While the program's history suggests that it is one of the predominant forces in the game -- this is Duke's 10th national championship game appearance – no player on this current team, prior to this season, had even been past the Sweet Sixteen.
Duke is maybe the most polarizing program in college basketball, but much of the reaction to Duke is a result of the successes of past players.
"We're this Duke team. We're not any of coach's previous Duke teams," Duke forward Lance Thomas said. "That's something we realized. We're not trying to be something that we're not. We have to look in the mirror and realize that we're not Christian Laettner's team. We’re not Bobby Hurley's team. That's not us."
And while the perception may be, as a result of the name on the front of their jerseys, that it was easy for these Duke players to make it this far, that is not the case. Upperclassmen on this Duke team have endured a wealth of postseason disappointment while also having the burden of living up to the Duke name. The team's perseverance is, for a change of pace, downright likeable.
"I just wish people could look at this team as an individual team and not the program's history," Duke's Miles Plumlee said. "None of these guys have been this far and we've all worked so hard to get to this point, and really, it's a great story with what the seniors have been through."
With the stark contrasts in these two program's histories, it seems as if too much focus is being put upon the past, thus confusing the issue. Grant Hill and Elton Brand are not playing in the game on Monday night. Neither is Bobby Plump. The student-athletes competing in this game should be the focal point since they have achieved and overcome a great deal to get here.
Take a look at Duke center Brian Zoubek, whose career was plagued by inconsistency brought on by a succession of foot injuries, but he has somehow managed to become a major force for the Blue Devils in the paint his senior year.
Zoubek had six points and 10 rebounds versus West Virginia. With two more offensive rebounds, the 7-foot-1 center will tie Duke’s single-season offensive rebound record set by Brand, the 1999 consensus Player of the Year.
Another Duke senior, Jon Scheyer, has done just about everything he could to help rid Duke of its NCAA Tournament demons. Scheyer, who admitted to feeling like a "big failure"; early in his career, is averaging 20.3 points in his last three games, and against West Virginia he became only the 17th player in Duke history to score 700 points in a season.
Scoring points won't come easy against Butler, which has held all five of its opponents in the NCAA Tournament to less than 60 points. That is the first time that has happened in the shot-clock era. A team that dominant in such an important facet of the game certainly shouldn't be befitted with a Cinderella label, right?
This year's Butler squad has also captivated the city of Indianapolis unlike ever before. Seas of Butler fans have populated the downtown area all week, and the players have been received like rock stars. This team, while it's convenient to think of it as an underdog, consists of the past two Horizon League Players of the Year, this year’s Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, and one player, Shelvin Mack, who is Butler's all-time leading scorer in NCAA Tournament games.
Duke, for one thing, is not taking the supposed underdog lightly.
"This is probably going to be the toughest game we play all year," Thomas said. "The two best teams are playing for the championship right now. They are that good."
Butler has a similar respect for its opponent on Monday, but the team seems to realize that it is only up against the current Duke team - and not teams of Duke's past.
"We don't worry about the names on the jersey or the coach on the sidelines," Butler forward Willie Veasley said. "Even though they are, as I said, a strong program, you can't let that get to you."
The national championship game features two teams that have over 30 wins, that play suffocating defense and that play as cohesive units. Both teams have star power and both have had to battle to get to the biggest stage of all on Monday night.
It is a final matchup that serves as a shining example for the merits of college basketball’s postseason system. So, pay less attention to each program's history, and just enjoy as each makes history.
"Once we step on the court we know it's just five on five," Butler forward Andrew Smith said. "What happened in the past doesn't really matter."