Butler goes down its way

HOUSTON – Shawn Vanzant sat in the corner of the Butler locker room, sobbing, his teammates said, at an almost uncontrollable level. Next to him was Matt Howard, a towel draped over his head, the tears coming just as hard.

Together, the two seniors had shot 3 for 23, an absolutely abysmal, crushing performance in the biggest game of their lives. Connecticut was outside clipping the national championship nets. In here it was just hell, the aftermath of a great team gone bad – 12-of-64 shooting, a record-low 18.8 percent from the floor, losing 53-41, the fewest total points in a title game since the shot clock was invented.

Matt Howard and his teammates were left heartbroken in the locker room.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Vanzant thought it was his fault. Howard felt no better.

And that’s when Ronald Nored, eyes red and tear-filled as well, noticed his teammates, got up, crossed the locker room and reminded everyone what this entire pursuit is about.

He pulled Shawn Vanzant up off his stool and hugged his friend, physically and emotionally attempting to lift him out of his depression.

After a few seconds, Nored stepped over to Howard and did the same. And soon enough, his teammates followed. One after the other, from the freshmen to the managers, from the benchwarmers to the starters, every last Butler Bulldog was taking a moment to remind each other, particularly those bottomed-out seniors, that this was about a lot more than some basketball game.

“It [was] hard for me to watch; it’s hard for me to talk about,” coach Brad Stevens said of the scene, his voice catching and his eyes watering behind his glasses.

“But it’s the best part of the story.”

The story of Butler, the one that’s captured underdog hearts for two consecutive NCAA tournaments, was always about a group finding a way to be better than its individual parts. The Bulldogs were a family, they said. They were a brotherhood, they reminded. They believed they could reach back-to-back NCAA title games when there was no logical reason to think such a thing was possible.

This is what all kinds of teams say, of course. And it’s easy to be a family when the shots are falling and victories are piling up and you’re shocking the world night after night. It’s another when you take the grandest stage in college basketball and proceed to experience a failure of historic proportions.

Butler hit just 3 of 31 shots inside the arc. It made just six baskets in each half. At one point, the Bulldogs missed 13 in a row. They clanked open shots and blew gimmes they make in their sleep. As much credit as the long-armed Huskies’ defense deserves, in the back of every Bulldogs’ mind was the thought that they gave this away by playing the worst game of their lives at the worst possible moment.

“All the people who played in the game think they let us down,” Stevens said. “And that’s ridiculous.”

That’s also when everything gets tested. Butler blew it and that’s when fingers tend to get pointed and playing time gets questioned and selfishness can rise up. If only he had made that lay-up. If only he had knocked down that open jumper.

“It’s very easy to just think about yourself and be frustrated in the situation,” Howard said.

Instead, the Bulldogs showed all the talk was real. They did it one hug after the next. One whispered “I love you” after another. One pat on the back and look into the eye and honest bit of concern. The harder some cried, the harder the rest worked to ease the pain.

Stevens stood in that locker room, took it all in and saw the kind of miracle for which coaches strive – collective support in the lowest and rawest of moments. Kids caring about kids. Perspective and purpose on display. It may not get you a clipped net, but that’s some kind of championship in itself.

“Hard, hard to put into words,” Stevens said, his voice trailing a bit.

“It’s probably the great thing about sports,” assistant coach Matthew Graves said.

Nored said he never hesitated. Once he noticed Vanzant in such a state, the game didn’t matter. Only his friend did.

Shelvin Mack and the Bulldogs struggled for open looks and misfired when they got them.
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

“That’s what we’re here for, we’re here for each other,” Nored said. “In the big picture, who really cares about basketball? It’s about the guys in this locker room. I wanted Shawn to know we don’t really care that his shot didn’t go in; we care about him.”

Howard, just a half-hour later, could only marvel at the entire thing. Butler had come to win the title on Monday, but when he gathered the team pregame in the tunnel, he told everyone to forget what was at stake.

“Don’t think about the national championship,” he shouted. “This is our last time playing together.”

With that, the Bulldogs broke huddle and sprinted out into the dome.

A couple hours later, his message meant more than ever. The national championship was gone. The appreciation of playing together was not. He couldn’t hide under that towel after the game. His teammates wouldn’t let him.

“[They] come over and give you a hug and tell [you] how much [they] love [you] and appreciate [you] and that is what this team is about,” Howard said. “It’s really uplifting because no matter the result, they want to be a part of this team and that is all that’s on their mind. They want to pick you up.

“It’s a special group. That’s the only reason we’ve been able to do what we have.”

They talk a lot about the “Butler Way” around here, although no one has a specific definition of it. Mostly it’s about being selfless, not caring who gets the points or the headlines or the accolades. Here on the night of a bitter, bitter defeat, Brad Stevens was reminded it can mean a whole lot more than that.

“You know if someone has to go 12 of 64 and lose that game and do it that way,” he said, “these guys have the character to handle that.”

The game had been a nightmare. The embarrassment of all those misses will linger. The frustration of so many good players failing to make simple shots will haunt them.

But it won’t happen alone. Not with these guys. Not after Ronald Nored hugged Shawn Vanzant in the corner of that locker room and just wouldn’t let go.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 5, 2011