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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Top story No. 4: Butler's unforgettable run to NCAA final

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CBSSports.com is counting down the Top 10 storylines of 2010 in sports, culminating with the No. 1 story, which will be revealed on Dec. 30.

They were in classes the morning of the title game.

That was the neatest part.

Ronald Nored, Matt Howard and the rest of the Butler players got up on that Monday and went to school just like normal, and never mind that nothing was normal in their world or the college basketball world in general. This small school from a small league filled with everything but five-star recruits was playing for the national championship. Duke was the opponent, Lucas Oil Stadium the location. So we had the truest of true underdogs against this era's most prestigious program, and the game was scheduled for a dome six miles from Butler's Indianapolis campus.

It was like a movie except it was real life.

And I was there.

More than anything, I loved the buildup -- so much so that I remember walking around downtown on the morning of the game (while Butler's players, genuine student-athletes, were in classes) and thinking how I might be about to witness one of the great moments in sports history.

Yes, these Bulldogs were plenty good enough to win this particular game considering they already had eliminated Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State from the NCAA tournament. But they were still a small team from a small school from a small league filled with everything but five-star recruits. So a national championship would have, in the grand scheme of things, ranked up there with the United States Olympic hockey team winning the gold medal in 1980 and Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990.

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I recall the anticipation being palpable.

And then I remember thinking this: The game won't match the hype.

I guess I was just playing the odds.

The storylines leading up to tipoff were so perfect -- Little Bitty Butler against Big Bad Duke, Brad Stevens talking about reading Mike Krzyzewski's books, etc., -- that I figured the 40 hours before the game would crush the 40 minutes of the game in terms of holding my interest if only because that's usually the case. Next thing I knew, Gordon Hayward was launching a potential winning shot from halfcourt as the final buzzer sounded, and I was following it with my eyes, from left to right, and I was thinking that where this ball landed would change the sport forever, one way or another.

If it misses, that's a fourth championship for Coach K.

If it misses, Duke is officially back.

If it misses, is this the first of two straight titles for Duke?

Or …

If it goes, this building is about to explode.

If it goes, the movie rights will be sold by the end of the year.

In the end, Butler settles for getting to the final. But the run meant so much more. (Getty Images)  
In the end, Butler settles for getting to the final. But the run meant so much more. (Getty Images)  
If it goes, is this the greatest achievement in the history of the sport?

From the moment the ball left Hayward's hand to the time it made contact wasn't even two seconds, but it felt like two years. Every person in the announced crowd of 70,930 -- most of whom, let's be honest, wanted the shot to go -- seemed to be holding his or her breath, and then the ball hit the backboard, the rim and fell to the court. Game Over. Duke won 61-59. The Blue Devils celebrated appropriately. But the story of the night, the tournament and season still was and forever will be Butler.

The Bulldogs were that close to doing something that might never be done again given how the gap between the haves and have-nots in college athletics is growing by the day. They were that close to immortality, that close to that Disney movie and to joining our 1980 Olympic hockey team and Buster Douglas, too.

Stevens summarized things well afterward.

"You can be at peace with whatever result you achieve from a won-loss standpoint because of what they gave -- they gave everything we had," he said. "There's certainly nothing to hang your head about. I told them in [the locker room], what they've done, what they did together, will last longer than one night."

Or one year.

Or one decade.

Truth is, that Butler team will be remembered forever.

The ending wasn't perfect.

But the story was and still is classic.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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