Three seconds left, down by two, he rebounds the missed free throw. He eludes a defender and dribbles to half-court. Two seconds left. He loops around a screen, racing toward the basket. One second. He jumps and releases a prayer from 40 feet. The buzzer sounds. The shot banks off the backboard, rattles inside the rim and drops through the net with a satisfying “fffp.” He won it!
That will be the scene at some future NCAA championship. Eventually, someone will throw in a half-court heave to win, and the media and fans will go giddy with excitement about the greatest shot in collegiate history. The player will become an instant legend. The coach will be praised for his brilliant strategy. And everyone will have forgotten Butler.
Maybe an astute observer will remember “that guy for Butler who barely missed. Oh well.” But the team won’t get more than a passing mention from a few fans or some filler time on ESPN8. Sports records are winner-take-all, and winning in college sports is as much time and chance as it is swiftness and skill.
College playoff games are knockout battles between groups of players who, if they lose, will likely never play together again. Imagine an old-fashioned military battle where the armies decide they will stop fighting after 40 minutes, and whichever side has the fewest casualties will gain total annexation of the other’s land. That would be a gorier version of NCAA sports. Throw in human officiating and you have the simultaneous thrill and injustice of collegiate athletics.
Basketball, football, baseball, soccer, etc. — all the greatest sports are games of inches, percentages and luck. If Gordon Hayward’s shot goes three inches to the left, it banks in. Indianapolis parties. The shot is replayed countless times. Brad Stevens and Hayward are remembered as Goliath-slaying legends; they might even make a movie about it. But it didn’t, so now we’ll see replays of Kyle Singler’s step-back jumpers and praises of Coach K as one of the greatest coaches ever.
The luck goes beyond the last play. If a couple of Matt Howard’s early layups and free throws fell, the game would have been completely different. If Michigan State’s Korie Lucious missed his last-second three against Maryland, or if Andy Rautins would have made a couple more threes for Syracuse against Butler, we would have seen a whole host of other circumstances unfold, and there is no way to know who would have been the champion.
But none of those alternatives happened, and now, justifiably, we are praising Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith for their gritty defense and smooth shooting. While Duke deserves acclaim because they played well, a Butler championship on Hayward’s buzzer beater would have been the most memorable tournament performance in history. But the unpredictable, random yet unwavering nature of sports — especially in college — is what makes underdog victories and last-second shots so rare, and as an extension makes the sports so exciting to watch.
So the next time you are watching a game, pay attention to the near misses, close calls, and the fractions of a second that can turn a probable champion into an also-ran. Because even though the Butlers of the world don’t end up with the glory, it’s nice to recognize their excellent performance and think about what could have been.
Andrew Noland is a senior business major from Louisville, KY. E-mail him at email@example.com