APIt will go down in history as a game with a great buzzer-beater, but it's important to remember that this was a great and close game between two strong teams: 21 lead changes, and neither side was ever ahead by more than six. Still, it was a game of runs, like Garrett Butcher's scoring flurry off the bench, ODU's 6-0 return run, and the seven minutes the Monarchs went without a field goal -- it all added up to the final.
HARTFORD, Conn. -- I remember my first fixed game. It was five seasons ago. In the final minute of a body-bag guarantee matchup in an ACC arena, with the home team up by 14, a player on the home team broke away for a transition layup. But before he could rise to the hoop, players on the bench yelled out. An assistant gave the baseball "safe" sign, which in this context meant "don't score."
The player pulled up, and the offense just stopped. There was time on the game clock, but the 35-second clock ran out and the ball was turned over. The few people left in the stands roared in disbelief. I didn't understand what had happened either, until an assistant coach on the visiting team (who had seen it too) reminded me what the point spread was: 15.5. They call it "shaving points," and we'd witnessed two lopped off with a straight razor.
Or maybe it was a 10 point lead, and the spread was 10.5, and maybe it was six years ago. And it was the Big Ten, maybe. I go to so many games, I lose track. Years have passed, and no players from that game remain in college. The coaching staff of the school in question has turned over twice. The game is forgotten by everybody who played in it or paid to see it, and whatever money changed hands is long since spent.
I'm not being purposely coy, I do have to fudge the details because I've been asked to give a statement before. In January 2006, I wrote a feature article for ESPN.com about sitting in the stands with the late Jerry Falwell
as his Liberty Flames played Marist in a non-conference game. The "compliance people" who contacted me didn't want further clarification on how good Jared Jordan was, they were compiling a report, and wanted me to provide a greater context for a specific passage I wrote.
As the crowd cheered, Falwell turned to a sweatshirted teenage boy seated with friends across the aisle.
"Can you make that play Blair just made, son?"
It was Matt Dunton, son of Liberty coach Randy Dunton. Matt is a junior point guard for local Brookville High who dropped 28 points in his game the other night.
"Yes sir, I can," came the respectful reply.
Falwell beckoned him over, summoned him close. He wrapped the young man's hand in his.
"I hope you consider coming to LU," the master recruiter whispered. "We've got a place for you."
Matt Dunton never ended up playing Division I college basketball, Jerry Falwell died soon thereafter, and there was no NCAA investigation. But back then, my story triggered the "potential impermissible contact" button. I reported that both Dunton and Falwell were smiling, fully cognizant of the man with the notebook and tape recorder next to them, and that it was clearly a joke between two people who clearly knew each other well.
If I ever did get another call or a request to be a see-something say-something snitch, I'd simply reply, "Why don't you
do it?" Most of the games I go to, there are a few journalists, maybe a league official or two, and occasionally an officials observer taking notes. The only reminder of the national governing body is usually the Respect: It's the name of the game
banner hanging in the corner with the blue-disc logo.
Had there been a trained NCAA observer at that game, they would have seen exactly what I did. But there's nobody on site to keep an eye on every single 5,500 Division I games that occur each year, nobody dropping in randomly on practices to watch how they are run. If there were preemptive measures, maybe there would be no Binghamton or Coastal Carolina. Maybe there would be a chilling effect.
But that's not the way NCAA justice works. It's not oversight, it's aftersight. There are no patrol officers on the street, but plenty of after-the-fact detectives who demand paperwork and assemble patchwork pasts, usually years later. There is no preventative aspect with this approach, and so programs are free to cheat until they get caught. And not very many get caught.
NCAA men's college basketball has a real problem, and it's not barbecue nights or telephone calls or drugs or a $20 bill for the winner of a shooting contest in a closed practice. It's not just Toledo
that's been doing it. I know there are others on press row who have seen it too, but it's easier to break stories about technicalities not covered by federal law, and I probably have less to lose than most on the row do. Besides, being McGruff the Crime Dog really isn't part of a journalist's job description anyway.
There is so much about this sport in its current state that is ugly and twisted. That night, and others like it, strengthened my resolve to focus on the good in Our Game, and cling to the tattered idea of a Beautiful Season, because I love basketball so much. It's been difficult to be positive, because there is so much soul-crushing negative all around. But lately, patience has been rewarded. I didn't know it, but we were all waiting for Butler.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Analysis has failed you, it's failed us all. It didn't warn anybody that the Bulldogs were breaking through last season, and it certainly didn't prepare us for the idea that the second verse would be same as the first.
The Way, Butler's Way (a/k/a George Mason's Way
, and originally Dick Bennett's Non-Negotiables
), doesn't account for things like rebounds, ball control or shot selection. There are no analyst catch-alls like "clutch," "grit" or even "magic," whatever that is. These things can be broken down further to their base elements, and there The Way can be found. Defense = passion
. Balanced offense is a function of sacrifice and servanthood
to a team concept. You try to win with humility
and lose with thankfulness
Maybe in the future, in large part thanks to Butler, teams with central philosophies will thrive. Conventional wisdom will be written in this language, this underlying source code. Teams and players and coaches might someday be judged based on their adherence to a philosophy, not a general statistical standard. Perhaps this will be a step in the direction of poets reclaiming the game from the geeks, in a sport that's long since had all the poetry beaten out of it.Unity:  Butler 60  Old Dominion 58