SALT LAKE CITY -- I'm loving this for Butler. No matter what you read from here on out, remember that. I'm loving a Final Four for Butler, any Final Four, much less one held in Butler's hometown. This is a great team, a cool team, a classy team -- and a deserving team. For Butler, I love this.
But I hate it for Kansas State.
Kansas State deserved better than what happened to it Saturday, and I'm not talking about the 63-56 loss to Butler in the West Regional final. I'm talking about the way the loss happened, or why it happened. With Kansas State struggling to reach the rim on jump shots, struggling to grab rebounds, struggling to control the dribble. Struggling to make it up and down the damn court.
History won't care about the reasons why, of course. History will remember this as the historic day Butler finished the leap from the Horizon League to the Final Four -- the one located in Indianapolis, no less. Me, I'll remember it for that, but also for something else. I'll remember it as the day Kansas State went home to get the rest it wasn't afforded before the most important game in program history.
This was the early game Saturday, the first of two nationally televised regional championship games. Butler-Kansas State came first, Kentucky-West Virginia was second. As you take that into account, remember what Kansas State went through Thursday night. The Wildcats played a double-overtime monstrosity against Xavier, going 40 hard minutes, then five more, then five more. That game was physically taxing, mentally unforgiving. It was brutal. And it was the late game.
Butler, for example, played the earlier game on Thursday. That game wasn't exactly easy. Butler and Syracuse went at it for 40 minutes, but that was the kind of competitive game you see every March. What Kansas State and Xavier did to each other, what they took out of each other, was awe-inspiring. And this isn't hindsight -- it's what I wrote that night.
But after playing that late, grueling game Thursday, Kansas State was given the early time slot Saturday.
"Yeah, I wish we had the later game [Saturday]," said KSU forward Curtis Kelly. "We could have used those extra hours to rest our bodies. We were exhausted, man."
Maybe you think a few hours here or there don't matter. Maybe you're right, but I'd ask you a question: Did you see the game Saturday? Did you watch what Kansas State went through against Butler?
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To answer that question fairly, you'd have to have seen Kansas State before Saturday. I did. I saw Kansas State against Xavier on Thursday night, obviously. I also watched Kansas State beat North Texas and BYU in the first two rounds at Oklahoma City.
And the Kansas State team that played Saturday bore no resemblance to that -- it wasn't even close. Butler deserves some credit for that, of course. Keep in mind my first paragraph, please, where I said Butler was deserving of the Final Four. Also keep in mind what I wrote Friday about the Bulldogs, when I said Butler was more Jaws than Hoosiers. This isn't a lucky team or even a Cinderella team. Butler's friggin' good -- good enough to beat Kansas State when Kansas State is playing to its potential.
But we didn't see that Kansas State team on Saturday. What we saw Saturday was a Kansas State team that was outrebounded 36-27 by smaller, slower Butler. We saw Kansas State score a season-low, by seven, total of points. We saw Kansas State shoot poorly -- 38.6 percent from the floor overall, 33.3 percent on 3-pointers, just 50 percent from the foul line -- and we saw Kansas State shoot it poorly in a telltale way: The shots it missed were short. Almost every time. In baseball, when a pitcher runs out of gas, he leaves his pitches up in the strike zone. In basketball, when shooters run out of gas, they hit the front of the rim. It's physics or physiology or something. Whatever the science, it's common sense.
"I don't think physical fatigue did [this to us]," said KSU coach Frank Martin, who gave Butler credit afterward. "But I think mentally we looked tired. We were sluggish."
Kansas State had nothing to start the game, and Butler opened an early double-digit lead. It's not like Butler was playing all that great, either. Butler shot 37 percent in the first half, had more turnovers (eight) than assists (five), and got just four minutes of game action out of foul-plagued 2009 Horizon League Player of the Year Matt Howard. And still Butler led 27-16 going into the final minute of the half.
Kansas State made a game of it by cutting the lead to 27-20 at the break, then extending its run to 10-0 to get within 27-26 in the second half. Butler pulled away again as Kansas State, from exhaustion, made some Keystone Kops mistakes. Jamar Samuels missed a dunk, Dominique Sutton missed a layup, and then Sutton traveled -- all on the same possession. Jacob Pullen let loose a 3-pointer, and 40-percent shooter that he is from distance, he knew it was good. He started to lope back for defense ... and then the ball clanged off the front of the rim. Pullen stopped running, shoulders sagging.
|In the end, Denis Clemente has nothing left to give. (AP)|
But they were tired.
Butler was probably tired, too. The Bulldogs had played 36 minutes Saturday after going 40 hard minutes Thursday. I'm not saying Butler was taking a vacation in Salt Lake City. But Butler was the fresher team Saturday, there was no doubt about that, and the Bulldogs closed the game on a 9-2 run.
Other than Pullen's last-second jumper, Kansas State didn't score in the final three minutes.
So who gets the blame? I don't know. Blame is such a harsh word for this, and not just because, frankly, my company would deserve some of what blame there is. CBS recommends which games it wants in which time slots, and the NCAA makes the final call. The NCAA takes into account every fact it can, including the duration and timing of games Thursday. Behind the scenes, the NCAA studies stuff like this -- how do teams react to playing in the late game Thursday (or Friday) and then in the early game Saturday (or Sunday). The NCAA also studies how teams fare when making the move from a Friday-Sunday pod to a Thursday-Saturday regional. And the truth is, according to a senior NCAA official I grilled after the game Saturday, there is no data that would suggest Kansas State was going to be at a disadvantage on Saturday.
That's fine. I understand data and trends, and the absence of both. But I also understand what I know, and what I saw. And I damn sure understand this: Kansas State won 29 games this season with a frighteningly intense style of play at both ends of the court ... but Kansas State spent Saturday looking like it needed a nap.