The final moments, the larger meaning: A look back at a Butler basketball season cut short

The Butler men’s basketball team huddles during a game this season. The Bulldogs reached double-digit Big East victories this season for the first time under head coach LaVall Jordan. Xan Korman / Collegian file photo.

CHRIS BROWN | SPORTS EDITOR | cbbrown@butler.edu

February wasn’t particularly kind to the Butler men’s basketball team.

After a 2-2 start to the month, the Bulldogs dropped three games in a row, including a home loss to a Georgetown team without its top two scorers and a road loss to then-15th-ranked Creighton by 22 points.

While Butler’s resume was already strong enough to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament, nothing more than that was assured. For a Bulldogs team battling injuries and inconsistency, the possibility of a limp to the finish line and first-round exits from both their conference tournament and March Madness certainly existed.

Prior to its final three regular season games, the team sat down and set a markedly different goal for itself: 12 wins in a row, a number which would have had Butler cutting down the nets in Atlanta.

It’s been roughly seven weeks since then, and the Butler men’s basketball team hasn’t lost a game since. The Bulldogs defeated DePaul and St. John’s by 18 and 22 points, respectively, at Hinkle Fieldhouse in their next two games before squaring off against the Xavier Musketeers in Cincinnati on their rival’s senior night. 

After a five-point possession put Xavier out in front with under eight minutes to play, Kamar Baldwin continued his second half takeover of the game, scoring 13 of Butler’s final 15 points. The senior guard capped off his career-best 36-point performance with a last-second 3-pointer as the Bulldogs won their regular season finale 72-71.

No one could have imagined that’s how the 2019-20 Butler men’s basketball season would come to a close.

“Is this going to be how the season ends?”

When the Bulldogs arrived in New York City for the Big East Tournament on March 10, the sports world was still operating at close to full speed. The Ivy League’s decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the only major sports cancelation of the day, was just the first of several dominoes to fall in the next few days, though.

Over the next 48 hours, most of the sports world would come to an abrupt halt. On March 11, the Big 10 and ACC, among other power conferences, announced their tournaments would be played without fans and the NCAA announced the same would be true for March Madness. 

The biggest development of the day came when the NBA suspended its season following Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test for the coronavirus. It was around this point that redshirt senior Sean McDermott and his roommate Henry Baddley realized their chances of playing again were incredibly small. But with nothing decided, they couldn’t let their minds go there completely.

“I think that was the unusual part of it, you can kind of figure that things are going to get canceled, but you’re still expected to prepare as if you’re going to play,” McDermott said. “For me personally, it was kind of challenging because then all the emotions start setting in and like, ‘Is this going to be how the season ends?’”

While McDermott said he was confident that everything would have been fine once he stepped on the court at Madison Square Garden, he and his teammates never got that chance.

Just moments before they were set to get on the bus to travel to the arena on Thursday, and after every major conference had canceled its tournaments, Butler players were told to come to a team meeting. 

They knew what was coming. Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup between Creighton and St. John’s was cut short at halftime. The rest of the Big East Tournament would not be played.

“It was a pretty quiet, somber meeting,” McDermott said. “And then coach [LaVall Jordan] just kind of stepped up there and said, ‘Hey, we don’t know what the next steps are going to be. But if this is it I’m really proud of you guys and this team and we couldn’t have gone out better.’”

There were a few tears. There was some laughter as jokes were thrown around to try to keep spirits up. There was still hope they’d get to play another game this season.

Players were allowed to go out with family but advised to avoid crowds. It was at dinner with his family when McDermott saw the NCAA Tournament had been canceled for the first time in its 81 years.

There was another team meeting. Butler’s season was now officially over, and that was starting to sink in. Jordan gave the floor to his four seniors — McDermott, Baldwin, Baddley and graduate transfer Derrik Smits — to say what they wanted to their teammates. They spoke of what playing at Butler meant to each of them and expressed their gratitude toward teammates and coaches. 

They didn’t have too much time to stop and reflect, though. The Bulldogs left to return to Indianapolis that night. By the next day, the members of Team 122 were apart from each other.

“It’s just kind of a time where you reflect as a team and individually what Butler meant to you,” McDermott said. “But you’re doing it by yourself instead of with your teammates, which I think made it harder and made it sink in that it was over.”

The Bulldogs were a quarter of the way toward their goal of 12 straight victories. They’d never get the chance to secure the final nine.

“You never go to a tournament expecting that your season is going to end without playing a game,” McDermott said. “I think the most memorable moments will probably be the two meetings that we had that day, just because it was time where we came together and embraced each other when it was hard for everybody individually.”

There’s pride, there’s sadness

It’s been nearly five weeks since that Thursday, and so much has changed. McDermott has gone from preparing for his final Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament to, like so many others, spending time mostly at his house. 

This being his fifth year at Butler, McDermott had already finished all his classes going into the semester, and with his internship also coming to an abrupt stop, he’s been working to stay in shape for whatever comes next. He’s stayed in touch with his teammates, but now gone are the days of constant interaction and communication. It’s a reality of what lies ahead for being a senior.

As the last few weeks have gone by, McDermott has had time to reflect further, on this season and on his Butler career.

The biggest thing he’s felt is pride — an extreme sense of pride to be part of Butler basketball and the university, McDermott said.

“Then, of course, there’s some sadness,” McDermott said.

He looked back at game film, the One Shining Moment videos people have made and shared on social media.

“You take advantage of the moments when you’re in them and then when they’re gone would do anything to go back and be back in those moments be playing in Hinkle again, be playing in the NCAA tournament again,” McDermott said. 

He said there’s two sides to it: “One is that you can look back and be extremely happy with everything that happened, and then the other is just the realization…that it’s all done. That hits pretty hard.”

The summer was their defining moment

This season, for Butler and other college basketball teams across the country, will undoubtedly always be remembered for how it ended. But there’s much more to it than that which shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. 

While the Bulldogs spent 13 weeks in-season in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, this season didn’t begin with lofty expectations, and there were logical reasons for that. Last season, for the first time in five years, the Bulldogs didn’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday after finishing tied for last in the Big East with a 7-11 conference record. 

The 2018-19 Butler basketball season ended with a first-round loss not in the NCAA Tournament, but in the NIT, something McDermott said served as a wakeup call for every returning player.

“I think the turning point for this season was playing in the NIT last year,” he said. “I think our summer was our defining moment where we changed the trajectory that we were on as a team and it led to the season that we had.”

After being picked to finish eighth in the conference by Big East coaches, the Bulldogs started the season 15-1 for the first time in 11 years, began conference play 3-0 for the first time since joining the Big East, and rose to No. 5 in the nation in the AP poll, their highest in-season rank in program history.

“We didn’t pay attention to [the ranking] at the time,” McDermott said. “But looking back on it, that’s a pretty awesome accomplishment to be number five in the country when nobody believed that we would finish top five in the league.”

The team’s success didn’t come without obstacles. Baldwin and Aaron Thompson both missed time due to injury, Smits battled knee problems for most of the year, and both Christian David and Campbell Donovan suffered season-ending knee injuries. Players like Bryce Golden and Bryce Nze emerged, while Jordan Tucker upped his performance and the Bulldogs relied on strong defense and senior leadership. 

In the end, the Bulldogs reached double-digit Big East victories for the first time under Jordan, and their 22 total wins were also their best mark under the third-year head coach. 

It certainly wasn’t always pretty, as the team’s February performance clearly illustrates. But resilience remained.

“I think this team was a group of guys that fought for each other and for Butler and our fans, the people that we love and the people that we care about, and we went out and fought every night,” McDermott said. “I think this team just banded together more than any team I’ve been a part of. And that’s what made this team special.”

At the beginning of the season, Thompson said one of the team’s goals was “getting back to playing Butler basketball.” For Jordan, it sounds as if that mission was successful.

“In my mind, [this season] is one of the most powerful examples of Butler basketball that there’s been in terms of what we want to be and who we want to be and represent,” Jordan said.

A different team

The goal for Butler was 12 straight wins, and that goal wasn’t going to change just because their final regular season contest wouldn’t have seeding implications.

By the time the Bulldogs tipped off against Xavier on March 7, they were already locked in as the five-seed in the Big East Tournament, and their NCAA Tournament seed was unlikely to change much regardless of result. 

If Butler was any less motivated to knock off their rivals on senior night, it certainly didn’t show. The Bulldogs battled in an up-and-down second half before Baldwin took over. In what would be his final game in a Butler uniform, Baldwin scored 25 points in the final 20 minutes, and knocked down that last second three.

Baldwin and his teammates didn’t show any signs of thinking ahead of the moment at hand. 

“It was about the process, being present and being in the moment,” Jordan said. “When you think of Butler basketball, I think it’s to control what you can, put the team first, be present and don’t flinch.”

For McDermott, the final moments of that game ended up being the final moments of his college basketball career. Baldwin makes the shot. McDermott comes racing over, gesturing to remain calm, though also clearly caught in the excitement of the moment. 

There’s still just over a second added back on the clock, enough time for Xavier to get a shot off. The inbound pass is intercepted at mid-court by McDermott.

And that was it. The game was over. The season would be, too — with that game-winning, last-second 3-pointer forever serving as its final moment, a moment McDermott has watched plenty of times since. And there’d be no regrets about the approach brought into that last game.

“To be able to go beat your rival on their court on senior night on a last second shot, I think that’s a pretty good way to go out,” McDermott said.

The 2019-20 Butler men’s basketball team only got a quarter of the way toward those 12 consecutive wins to end the season. But in those final three games, they accomplished as much of that goal as they could. In the end, there’s not much more that could be asked for than that.

This was a different Butler basketball team. And it showed ‘til the very end.

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