NEW ORLEANS -- As they were hugging and smiling and taking turns cutting nets after recording another win over a power-conference school they were not supposed to beat to make another Final Four they were not supposed to make, Butler assistant Micah Shrewsberry took a moment to remember the low point.
It came when the Bulldogs lost 62-60 at Youngstown State.
It was Feb. 3.
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On the same day a year earlier, Butler was 10 wins into a 25-game winning streak that took the Bulldogs to the national championship game, but now they were struggling. They had just lost for the fourth time in five outings and dropped to 14-9 overall, 6-5 in the Horizon League. According to any projected bracket, Brad Stevens was headed for the NIT or CBI or something not called the NCAA tournament.
"It was frustrating because it just seemed like nothing was going our way," Shrewsberry said. "So we were in the locker room and nobody was really saying much, and I just remember Coach Stevens saying, 'I've got to be better. I've got to be better.' And that's when Zach Hahn spoke up. He said, 'It's not on you, Coach.' He said, 'We need to step up and do our jobs.'"
"I definitely remember that," Hahn said. "Coach kept trying to take ownership of the losses, and I was like, 'Look, you're doing all you can. This is on us. We need to start playing the way we're capable of playing and the way you teach us to play. When we do that, good things happen.'"
Is there any debating that now?
"This is unbelievable," Hahn said after Saturday's 74-71 overtime victory against Florida that has the darlings of last year's Final Four headed back to this year's Final Four. "The feelings are just overwhelming. It's just incredible."
Colin Firth won his first Oscar last month.
Upon accepting the award, he made an interesting comment.
"I have a feeling my career has just peaked," Firth said, and everybody laughed. But the truth is that the star of The King's Speech might be closer to right than wrong. One of the cruel things about success never before obtained is that it's often never obtained again, which brings me back to Butler and its run to last year's national championship game. When Gordon Hayward's half-court heave hit the backboard, the rim and, ultimately, the floor as time expired in the Bulldogs' 61-59 loss to Duke, it was reasonable to think Butler basketball had peaked.
Sure, the school would win more games and make more NCAA tournaments. But it was reasonable to think Stevens would never lead Butler to another Final Four because, let's be honest, programs that spend like Butler and come from a league like the Horizon don't typically make Final Fours. That's why last year's story was so incredible, because stuff like that never happens. And yet now it's happening all over again, and this time it's even more incredible.
Last year's Butler team was ranked 10th in the preseason; this year's Butler team was ranked 18th. Last year's Butler team had a lottery pick; this year's Butler team lost a lottery pick. Last year's Butler team was ranked eighth on Selection Sunday, and it received a No. 5 seed that most deemed too low; this year's Butler team was unranked on Selection Sunday, and it received a No. 8 seed that most deemed too high. Bottom line, this Final Four run was more difficult to project than that Final Four run, and that Final Four run was incredibly difficult to project.
The only thing that makes what's happened the past two weeks somewhat sensible is that it's happened to Butler, and our minds are conditioned, because of what happened last year, to cease being surprised by anything Stevens does with his Bulldogs. That's why nobody had Florida penciled into the Final Four even when the SEC champions took a 51-40 lead on an Alex Tyus bucket with 9:26 remaining. With Vernon Macklin on his way to a 25-point performance, Billy Donovan seemed likely to make his fourth Final Four, no question. But Butler had clawed back from similar deficits too many times over the past two years to be disregarded, and when Matt Howard scored 24 seconds after Tyus it was easy to envision what was coming.
"Coach called Matt over and told him to tell us that we were going to win this game," said Chrishawn Hopkins, who was inserted during desperate times despite playing just seven minutes since mid-January and, on cue, made a 3-pointer that helped spark Butler's comeback. "So Matt came over right after Coach said that and lit everybody up, and he told us that Coach said we were going to win this game."
Did you believe him?
"It's hard not to believe when Coach says something," Hopkins answered, and the high-fives continued around him. Meantime, Stevens was hanging on the court, waiting for his turn to walk up a ladder and cut down a net as the coach of the first school to make consecutive Final Fours from outside of a power conference since UNLV did it in 1990 and 1991. Stevens held his children, chatted with assistants and took pats on the back from dozens of well-wishers. Then he made eye contact with a familiar face, shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Wow," Stevens said. "This is just incredible."