BEYOND VARSITY: Butler-Connecticut about more than a championship
Bulldogs' success gives glimmer of hope to every mid-major program
This isn't about the Bulldogs.
Yes, Butler will be the team taking the floor tonight to square off against Connecticut, seeking the first mid-major championship since before the term "mid-major" even existed. (Your definition of the 1990 UNLV team may skew that detail.)
But Butler is representing every small school that wants to do basketball the right way.
The Bulldogs have built a program around doing things "The Butler Way," something coach-turned-athletic director Barry Collier is credited with developing. The Butler Way involves five components: passion, unity, servanthood, humility and thankfulness — attributes seen through the play of the Bulldogs night in and night out.
While Butler received national attention for its run to the title game last season, all of that has been in the works since the late '90s.
Under Collier, the Bulldogs started making NCAA Tournaments consistently. One season with now-Ohio State coach Thad Matta resulted in their first NCAA Tournament win in almost 40 years. Todd Lickliter took them to the Sweet 16 and we all know about the incredible accomplishments of Brad Stevens, the man who makes me wish I could quit journalism and pick up a clipboard.
Butler shows that it can win spending 40 percent of what tonight's opponent, Connecticut, does and 23 percent of the nation's top spender, Duke.
Butler shows that a team working together for four years can overcome even the best group of one-and-done players that use college basketball as a vacation rather than a learning experience.
Winning at the mid-major level requires a commitment to basketball and a patience to build a program.
Success doesn't happen overnight at the mid-major level. Players like Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are the product of years of coaching and development. They're the result of hard work and hustle — the spirit of The Butler Way.
Butler increased its budget by $1.1 million after its first Final Four run, as the athletics department showed its pledge to keep men's basketball as its focus.
It can be frustrating as a Ball State fan to watch the Cardinals flounder in mediocrity in the Mid-American Conference, but Butler gives me a glimpse of hope.
Coach Billy Taylor is trying to build a program at Ball State. It's slow going, but I think we're on the right track. Taylor led the Cardinals to their most wins since 2002, and he's recruiting and molding players who can compete for a conference title and the golden ticket of a tournament bid.
I want to have faith that Taylor will get the time to give me and all Ball State fans the NCAA Tournament bid we've been chasing for 11 years. I want to believe 2012 could be our year. It's the same hope Butler is giving to every fan of a mid-major basketball team.
So if Butler wins the national title tonight, does it prove that the Bulldogs were the best team in the country? Probably not. At the same time, we could say the same thing about Connecticut, the ninth-best team in the Big East.
At least we have a system where the small school gets a chance. If this was college football, Ohio State would have played Kansas for the national title and we wouldn't have gotten to enjoy the runs of all the Final Four teams who defied expectations.
Maybe a national title finally validates a mid-major as well. Maybe it leads to more mid-majors getting at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament, over the mediocre teams of the power conferences — the number of mid-major at-large bids dropped from eight in 2010 to seven this year even with Butler's run.
What may be more important than anything, rooting for the little guy is just exciting. I'd much rather pull for the little team that could over the traditional power.
Last year, Butler came within inches of pulling the miracle. I still catch my breath every time I see a highlight of Gordon Hayward's half-court shot as it floats in the air. I know better, but I always believe it will drop this time.
If the Bulldogs get the final shot tonight, let's hope it falls. It could be the moment that changes everything.