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The 2011 Butler Bulldogs almost had the ultimate NCAA tournament turnaround

A year after Gordon Hayward’s missed heave, Butler nearly made a run to immortality... again. But they once again would fall in the wrong side of history.

NCAA Men’s Championship Game - Butler v UConn Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When the confetti poured down from the rafters at Lucas Oil Stadium in April 2010, so too did Butler fans’ emotions. Merely a few centimeters separated immortality and heartbreak, as the Bulldogs’ loss in that NCAA Championship game to Duke still hits hard for many to this day.

In the moment, it stung. Four years after George Mason’s memorable run to the Final Four, Butler came so close to turning everything upside down. Winning the NCAA tournament, cutting the nets down, beating Duke, and doing it in Indianapolis would’ve provided for one of the most sensational sports moments ever. Instead, it’s left as a painful what-if in sports history.

The 2010-11 Butler team had a chance to pull off what their predecessor could not. History will tell you how this ends. At first, though, things looked very bleak. A loaded nonconference schedule that featured matchups with Louisville, future Big East peer Xavier, and a National Championship rematch against Duke headlined. The Dawgs would go on to lose all three of those contests, including the Duke game, which was over at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

A 4-4 start to the season likely made the feelings of the prior March sting harder. Butler needed to engineer some kind of reversal. After a 91-71 win over Mississippi Valley State, Butler climbed over the .500 mark. And they never looked back after that.

The Dawgs raced out on a six-game winning streak. They knocked off Stanford, Utah, and a future Sweet 16 team in Florida State on that run. By January 21, The Bulldogs were 14-6 and 6-2 in the Horizon League after an 81-75 win over Green Bay.

Then trouble sprouted again. Butler fell on the wrong end of two overtime finishes. The first was an 86-80 loss to Milwaukee at Hinkle. Late free throws — a stretch of 6-of-8 sealed up the victory — meant that the Panthers picked up their first win at Hinkle Fieldhouse since 2004-05.

After that, Butler fell in overtime again, this time in front of a sellout crowd at the Athletics Recreation Center against Valpo, 85-79. A third consecutive loss on the road to Youngstown State, thanks in part to a 3-pointer by Kendrick Perry. It marked the first win for the Penguins over Butler since January 2006.

So once again, the margin for error was thinning for Butler. With a 6-5 Horizon League record, they had to pull off a run. A better run than what they just rolled on. Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs needed to slam the gas and never look back. Especially if they wanted to heal those wounds from last March.

As fate would have it, Butler would roll right along. They reeled off seven straight victories to end the year. They then motored into the Horizon League Tournament and picked off Milwaukee 59-44 in the final. They scored revenge on the Panthers for that aforementioned defeat in January and punched their ticket to go back to the NCAA Tournament.

On Selection Sunday, their name was called, and it left them in a very familiar position. This screenshot will tell you that (and long live the very short-lived Southeast Region term):

But what were the reactions to this? Well, TNT’s Charles Barkley wasn’t shy with his opinion. “I think this is the easiest region for Pittsburgh right here,” Barkley said on the show. “They’ve got some pretty good teams here, but Pitt is by far the class of this region.”

“I’m going guns blazing here, losing my mind a little bit,” analyst Seth Davis countered, perhaps giving the inkling he was about to pick Butler to repeat history. However, that was not to be. “Old Dominion, Utah State, and Belmont are going to pull off big upsets,” Davis would say before raving about how ODU was a “great matchup” against the Panthers.

Did any of the other analysts have anything to say about Butler? Former CBS Sports analyst Greg Anthony raved about a particular team that played in the West Region in the 2010 edition of the NCAA Tournament.

“A lot of people think that maybe they have it easy,” Anthony said of Pitt’s chances in the Southeast Region. “I think Kansas State is the team you’ve gotta worry about if you’re Pitt,” Anthony would follow on a Wildcats team that would go on to not make it out of the first weekend.

The only time Butler was talked about for much of the show was when Seth Davis, in passing, mentioned Butler as a “physical team” towards the end of a segment about the region. So one year after making an incredible run to the Tournament final, the Bulldogs weren’t given much consideration or thought by the most visible panel in the game.

It was clear that the Bulldogs would be in for another wild ride right from the get-go. They pulled off a heart-stopping victory against Pittsburgh thanks to fan-favorite Matt Howard. Howard’s tip-in at the buzzer sent the eighth-seeded Bulldogs on to the Round of 32, as they proved once again they kind of had a flair for the dramatic.

Against top-seeded Pittsburgh, the Bulldogs were in for another hard-fought tussle. And once again, Howard found himself with a chance to give the Dawgs the victory. With 0.8 seconds remaining, all he had to do was sink one free throw to deliver the knockout blow. Deliver Howard did, as Butler shocked scores of Tournament watchers again by making it to the second weekend... again.

So now that they were on to the second weekend again, Butler had their work cut out for them. But bowling through barriers became their style. Against a Wisconsin team that finished 6th in KenPom that year, the Bulldogs beat the Badgers 61-54 in New Orleans. And then it was on to Florida and the Elite Eight.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
The 2010 and 2011 NCAA Championship finalist team was inducted into Butler University’s hall of fame Thursday, September 9, 2021, at Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Grace Hollars/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

What followed was one of the craziest NCAA Tournament games in recent memory. Despite trailing by 11 points with 10 minutes left, Butler would erase that deficit. They would race back into contention for a second trip to the Final Four thanks in large part to Shelvin Mack. Mack’s 27 points highlighted a memorable effort, and as Gus Johnson exclaimed at the end of the broadcast: The Bulldogs did it again.

Standing in Butler’s way of the National Championship Game was another longshot. VCU, who was infamously panned as a selection in the First Four, upset top-seeded Kansas FSU, and Purdue, among others, on the way to an improbable run to the NCAA Tournament. They were coached up by a 33-year-old defensive guru named Shaka Smart, whose strategies provided for a shocking run in March.

Down in Houston, Texas, Butler would get the job done in the first leg. Their 70-62 victory over the Rams assured them of another chance at immortality. Rarely do teams collect one shot at cutting down the nets. To do it again? As a low seed? In consecutive years? Either Butler was going to grab what they believed was theirs or be two crushing defeats away from feeling similar to those in Orchard Park, New York.

And...

Well...

You kind of know how this one ends by now.

In what is infamously one of the most woeful NCAA Championship Games in history, Butler’s run at history would once again fall short. This time though the game did not come down to the final shot. It was more about the shots that weren’t made. Neither team went above 34.5 percent on field goals, and the teams combined to shoot 10-for-44 on 3-pointers.

It is unfortunately regarded by some as the worst National Championship Game ever. In two consecutive years, Butler fell on the wrong side of history. The games could not have gone more oppositely, and yet, it’s hard to imagine being able to pick the lesser of two evils.

Butler hasn’t made a Final Four since then. But should they ever do it, it’s hard to imagine things going worse. Though, perhaps such a suggestion shouldn’t even be spoken about.