Meet David, the new Goliath: Butler’s victory over Duke marks the dawn of a new era in college basketball

Posted on April 6, 2010

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Move over Gonzaga, Villanova, George Mason, and the Western Texas Miners. There’s a new Cinderella in town. Take that, Goliath: there’s a new David. Butler’s unlikely run all the way to the National Championship last night was like cotton-candy-for-breakfast in the sports media this morning.

Many in the American sports chattering class routinely profess their infatuation for the Tournament. At least in March, and the first days of April, they will declare that “This is the closest thing that we have to perfect in sports.” (That was ESPN’s and the Washington Post‘s Michael Wilbon.) And as we know, there’s no Madness in March without a Cinderella team, a potential David; a bunch of humble, hard-working kids and a plucky coach from some small school knocking out one arrogant big-conference team after another. There’s at least one almost every year, but rarely do they go all the way, as Butler did last night, and slay the biggest, baddest giant of them all — the team everybody seems to love to hate — Duke.

We pine so much for the Cinderella story-line when the Tournament begins that we are collectively blinded to the true significance of Butler’s astonishing victory. Indeed, as my friend Kieran Healy tweeted before the game, we were blinded even to the ideal metaphor staring us in the face: the Duke against the Butler! Geddit? The very stuff of Edwardian literature.

Butler is no Cinderella: it is the future of basketball. Their victory was not a fluke or a miracle on hardwood. It was the triumph of a new strategy and a new way of coaching. Butler is gunpowder in the era of bows and arrows. Or to find the closest sporting analogy, they are Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” Oakland A’s taking down the conventional wisdom of the scouts and the big money of the Yankees.

Even before the Duke game, we were able to piece together enough of Butler’s puzzle to see the larger picture. They had one obvious future-NBA player, Gordon Hayward, to be sure; but also a cast of solid role-players who looked outmatched by their counterparts on the glamor teams they would beat. However, in the role of Billy Beane, they had 33-year-old coach Brad Stevens, with a degree in Economics and a passion for statistics. The proven conventional basketball wisdom of the winningest coach in Men’s Tournament history, Duke’s Coach K, would be no match for a system that knew all of Duke’s players’ tendencies better than they knew themselves.

Stevens’s and Butler’s victory is nothing less than a revolution.

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Well, as we know, that revolution would not be televised. In the game that was televised, Duke won. Things were as they should be. There were more Cinderellas than usual this year, but in the end, one of the four pre-Tournament number-one seeds outdanced everyone else.

And yet, and yet… As Coach K himself admitted in the first press conference after the game, either team could have won that game. A ball clanging off a rim here, or falling in there, and Butler wins (to use the special American sports subjunctive).

But pundits and historians abhor chance. We cannot allow great sporting events, or great social and political events, to be decided by chance. We need a narrative in which the result somehow makes sense — and if at all possible, makes sense of the kinds of virtues we believe should make a difference: hard work, optimism, skill, innovative strategy, justice, and good over bad.

So I submit, had Butler won, we would not have left it at “but for a ball clanging off a rim here, or falling in there, Duke would have won.” That would never have captured the historic significance of Butler’s triumph — a victory for honest, hard-working, plucky underdogs everywhere. A revolution that would change everything, everywhere, for ever.

What is wrong with us?

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