Everything comes and goes Marked by lovers and styles of clothes Things that you once held high And told yourself were true Lost or changing as the days come down to you. -Joni Mitchell
I've thought a lot about Bucknell after Lehigh knocked off Duke last Friday, becoming the second Patriot League team to win a NCAA tournament game. I was a freshman at Bucknell in 2005 when the Bison stunned Kansas. I remember getting a midnight phone call from my dad, who was working at the hospital but managed to watch much of the game on patients' TVs. Neither of us could believe what had just happened. It was an amazing upset, one of two red line upsets that night (Vermont over Syracuse). Bucknell built off that win and followed the incredible year with a dominant year, going undefeated in conference play, winning another tournament game, and finishing in the top 25.
Then things went south. Kevin Bettancourt and Charles Lee, the versatile, 3-point-shooting wings graduated that year, leaving players who couldn't replace their two-way production. Next, the Bison graduated Chris McNaughton, the all-league center, and two other key players from Bucknell's tournament seasons. With so much talent gone and not replaced, the Bison finished 12-19 that year, then bottomed out at 7-23 in Dave Paulson's first year. The cupboard was bare. Each graduating class left holes the incoming players could not fill. As the team moved past the glory years, the students who had filled the bleachers dwindled and became more frustrated by the team's lack of success. We got used to winning in a hurry--Bucknell had finished with a winning record in just four of the previous eleven seasons before the breakthrough--and were upset that the Bison weren't filling their holes. The fan support dwindled as people waited for their heroes to suit up again, unable to accept what the program had become.
Butler's fans have had a similar challenge this year. It's hard to watch the Bulldogs and not notice who's not there. Chrishawn Hopkins, Roosevelt Jones and Khyle Marshall are the program's future but they're not seasoned enough to carry the Butler offense each night the way Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack did the last two years. Brad Stevens has done good work with his team--they're scoring sixty and seventy points per game now instead of living in the fifties as they did earlier--but his young guns just aren't ready yet, as Valparaiso proved definitively in the conference tournament. I've wondered how Butler's fans have dealt with this after being so used to winning lots of important games. How does a fanbase react to playing in the CBI after being the national runner-up for two years?
The Butler fans that came to the Palestra on Monday night for their matchup with Penn didn't seem to be frustrated by the rebuilding at all. They cheered their Bulldogs well, waved their Butler-emblazoned flags, flyers, foam paws and knitted dolls (well, one knitted doll with a Butler jacket and cap) and supported this lesser version with a wonderful amount of love. In return, they got to see an improving Butler club demonstrate everything that's marked the Butler season in forty minutes against the Penn Quakers: Marshall's athletic play (he drew three fouls on dunk attempts and finished with a double-double), Ronald Nored's steady court leadership, the scoring flashes of Hopkins and Jones, a bench with a guy for seemingly everything you could need (as long as it was just one thing) and the usual stingy defense. Butler trapped Penn's star guard Zack Rosen on every high screen, preventing him from initiating the Quaker offense. Rosen, who practically is the Penn offense, finished 3-10 as Butler pulled away down the stretch on free throws to win 63-53.
Just like Bucknell of 2007 or Butler of 2012, Penn of 2013 will have some huge holes on their roster, especially Rosen's. Two years ago, Penn basketball won six games. This year, they won twenty and were a game away from an Ivy League playoff. They've done this on the back of their senior guard, who leads them in minutes, points, assists, efficiency, eFG% and a host of other things. The entire Penn offense has been constructed to depend on Rosen's talent on every possession. He has had to be brilliant for Penn to have a chance and, night after night, he has delivered all season. But next year, someone else will have to deliver and we'll have to get used to them.
It will be strange to see someone other than Zack Rosen running through that high pick, but it will happen. Rosen will be replaced, even if his hole remains. Over time, we'll get used to the new guy, admire and cheer for him like we did for Rosen, for Gordon Hayward, Chris McNaughton, Steph Curry, Omar Samhan and all our yesterday's heroes. At least, I hope I do.