The Sporting Discourse: Butler sets mid-major respect back

BY IAN MARTIN | APRIL 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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THE SPORTING DISCOURSE is a weekly column that will discuss relevant issues in the college sporting world.

The game Butler played Monday night set the mid-major movement back around 10 years. All the work of Gonzaga, Memphis, and, yes, those usually scrappy Bulldogs has been wiped away by a performance in which they shot 18.8 percent from the floor — and keep in mind they played in the title game last season.

When your 3-point shooting percentage is almost 10 points higher than your overall field-goal percentage, you probably didn’t win that game.

UConn scored 53 points, made one 3-pointer in a championship game, and won by 12.

And so many fans were blind-sided by the bad basketball.

There’s a difference between a legitimatly great mid-major program, something UNLV established in the early 1990s, and getting hot during the tournament. Note that UNLV is still the only non-major conference school to win the title in the tournament era.

No one would have been fooled by this Butler team if it had been pretty much any other non-major school making a Cinderella run.

Granted, repetition was a factor, because Brad Stevens’ gang made it back a second year. But to think this year’s Butler team would have defeated last year’s is incorrect.

Even I had fallen under the spell of Cinderella after the Pittsburgh game, in which Butler won essentially on a touch foul.

I originally wrote this column Monday afternoon arguing that Butler was not a mid-major but a major program, and it was breaking ground for every small-school team by getting respect. The best line of that was probably:

“Don’t call this year’s Butler a “mid-major” just because it’s a small school and doesn’t play in the Big Ten. Butler is just a damn good college-basketball program.”

Now, am I calling Butler a bad college basketball program? Absolutely not.

Yet an elite team doesn’t have its worst game of the season in the championship. I’m simply saying to be ever more cautious of the Cinderella. It should’ve been easy to see to that a team that lost numerous games in the Horizon League might falter on the biggest stage.

The other premise of my initial column I wrote — confident that Butler would at least keep it close if not win the whole tournament — was essentially that major conferences are overrated. Another line that was almost printed:

“But as much as size and resources come from the enrollment at a school, the history of the program is what’s more important. After all, should South Florida or any other historically poor basketball school be considered “major” just because of its conference? No.”

Yet, after watching UConn win an ugly, hideous, make-James-Naismith-roll-in-his-grave type game Monday evening, I realize that South Florida might fare as well in the tournament as a mid-level mid-major.

Yes, Butler would probably beat South Florida in a best-of-seven series, but if the game were close and the level of play was up to its potential, the Bulls would have a ton of experience playing great players in tough games.

Really, Monday night taught the value of the conference. All season, we heard about the amazing quality of play of the Big East, and then when only two teams made the Sweet Sixteen, there was chatter of being overrated. But really, it’s just bad luck.

Teams that played in the Big East, or any major conference, for that matter, have an advantage of quality of play. Now, in the tournament, a lot of its teams lost some close games, but still a team that finished ninth in the conference won the freaking NCAA Tournament.

Staying with that logic, Butler simply had a lot of good luck in this tournament. Not to diminish its accomplishments or the team’s much more legitimate run last season, but if a tip-in by Matt Howard in the first round rims out, the Bulldogs become the team that was in the championship in 2010.

Also, the team had the fortune of playing Virginia Commonwealth in the Final Four. As an eighth seed, Butler was three seeds higher than its opponent in the national semifinals.

Of course, Butler’s last two years are still amazing. Right now, I feel betrayed by a team that I believed in two years in a row not coming through, especially in the manner it didn’t get it done this season.

But in five, 10 years, whether Butler is still a nationally prominent program or not, it’ll still be interesting to look back on.

Actually, while the game may have set the mid-major reputation back for a few seasons, letting major conference elitists bring up points — albeit usually valid ones — about why the Pac-10 is better than the Mountain West, it’s this type of reaction that may be more shocking.

It used to be something for a mid-major just to get to the Final Four. Now it’s infuriating that they can’t win it.

Even if tonight’s game wasn’t progress, that probably is.

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