After yesterday's hoopla and this morning's denouement, it's time to look back at that beauty of a national title game. Let's hit the asterisks, and let's hit 'em hard:
*First and foremost, this was the best tournament I've ever seen. From day one- no, scratch that- from game one, it's been full of close contests, upsets, and knuckle-biting drama. The excitement didn't skip a single round; it was consistently amazing. Starting next year, the greatest event in sports will be ruined by expansion. Despite common sense ringing down from every side of the canyon, the NCAA is grasping for green. It's practically a foregone conclusion, and to whine would be to waste a lot of breath. So 2010 was the last hurrah for the perfect 64-team format, and man, was it good. We'll remember this one while we suffer through 32 play-in games in the coming years. We got lucky.
*I underestimated the hell out of Butler's defense. In my little keys to the game post, I said that I couldn't imagine Butler topping 60 points. Well, Mack and Heyward were contained just like I predicted, but Jukes played the game of his life, and they came a halfcourt prayer from reaching that total. But where I really went wrong was on the flip side. Butler held every tourney opponent under 60 coming into the title game, and I insisted it couldn't be done against Duke. Maybe they'll hold us under 70, I said, if we have a bad shooting night. But 60? No way.
Well, they almost made it happen. And we did have a bad offensive night, but Butler gets a lot of the credit for that. They're a team with incredible grit and toughness, and on the few occasions when it looked like we might pull away, they got big stops to make sure it stayed close. Trying to score on them was like running up against a steel wall. The scary part is, they might be even better next year.
*Kyle Singler is our savior. Scheyer had a nice game, but not a spectacular one. Nolan could never get his bearings, and struggled right up to the missed layup that almost buried us. But Sing wouldn't let us lose. And he played all 40 minutes. Yeah, the last shot came up way short, but his courageous effort against an intensely physical defense is the only reason we maintained a lead in the first place. A well-deserving MOP.
*I never thought I'd say this, but if you gave me a choice between keeping either Jon Scheyer or Brian Zoubek for another year, I'd take Old Snowshoes. And I bet Coach K would agree. He turned into a selfless, brutal sledgehammer of a human this season, attacking the glass with elbows raised and muscles bared. He set bone-shattering picks, he found the open man, and if opponents got too close, they felt the pain.
My proudest moment was watching him slowly break down the Baylor big men in the Elite 8. Those robust, athletic specimens were slouching around the lane like timid dogs by the end. On a related note, Matt Howard deserves congratulations. He's the first big man I saw who stayed with Zou til the very end, exchanging blows and exploring the rough interior terrain without fear.
*Did you guys notice that Duke mostly played the style of our opponent in the tournament? The only exceptions were Arkansas Pine-Bluff and West Virginia. We blew both teams off the court. Otherwise, it was like we chose to beat the other team at their own game. Against Cal, we ran with a fast and loose style. Against Purdue, we ground it out the Big 10 way (and it drove me nuts). Baylor was another up-and-down game showcasing individual ability and athleticism. And Butler, of course, quickly became a man-to-man war of attrition. In those games, there wasn't even an attempt to assert any kind of personal style. "This is how you want to play?" we seemed to say. "Fine, we're on board."
That's a risky way to do business, and it's both testament to and criticism of this team. Testament because we managed to succeed. We hacked and clawed and won by their rules. Criticism because historically great teams don't screw around like that. UNC last year comes to mind. Remember how Michigan St. wore out everyone with that relentless D? How nobody could crack their interior, how every possession was a chore? Not for the Tar Heels. Lawson and Ellington and company came out and sailed through. The Spartan defensive effort was akin to throwing a bucket of water at an advancing shark. And they were the best the nation had to offer.
But the Dukies had to do it the hard way. They didn't have flash or flair. Nothing was ever going to come easy. And really, that's why we came to love this team. They trudged out of the locker room every night ready to do battle. They came to get wounded, and hoped to wound the other guy more. I wouldn't change a thing.
*Nolan is staying, and Kyle is unsure. More here. If Sing does stick around, next year's team will be a lot of fun.
*A nice piece on Zoubek from his hometown paper, the Philly Inquirer. And by the way, happy birthday to Zou. He turned 22 on Tuesday.
*One more article on Nolan and his dad, from the Times. These always get me.
*You can watch the team's return to Cameron here. Great video, great atmosphere.
I still can't believe we're champions. I get goosebumps every time I remember. When I wrote a season preview back in November, I had this to say:
There's no way this team contends for a title, which in some ways is a positive. Unlike last year, we don't have to squirm in our seats and worry about the inevitable collapse, yet still harbor an insane hope that the Devils will live up to expectations and make a final 4 run.
That little bit of soothsaying looks pretty embarrassing in hindsight. But there weren't many who expected the kind of growth this team underwent. I might even call it unprecedented. They seized every opportunity that came their way. They didn't have a quitting bone in their collective body. They withstood doubt and hatred and the memory of past failure without blinking. And by season's end, they became an improbable absolute: the last team standing.
That's what it's all about. Duke will win more titles in the future, and they'll do it with better players and better teams. But I can't imagine any championship being more special.