Posted on 02 April 2010.
Brad Stevens, an Indy native, and his Butler squad will have hometown support in this year's Final Four.
By: Brian Mosgaller
So, the eve of the Final Four is finally upon us. And beyond the standard hyperbole of, ‘This is the best tournament ever!’ recited perfunctorily by the experts, the week’s media coverage has gravitated heavily – and understandably – toward the Butler Bulldogs. It makes sense; it is inarguably a special story. However, some of the pro-Butler, overly schmoozy portrayals of the team’s run may have turned some off. Which is why, I think it’s necessary to revisit the reasons why this underdog for the ages deserves your support…
1.) Butler is the flag-bearer for all mid-majors seeking real respect
Now, don’t get me wrong, George Mason was a fantastic story. Jim Larranaga was a lovable front man, and the Patriots knocked off tournament mainstays Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut to earn their way to the national semifinals. Unfortunately, it was a lighting-in-a-bottle moment. George Mason is a solid program, in a solid, mid-major league, that caught fire and a number of breaks on their way to the most magical run in tournament history.
Butler is different. The program has reached the tournament nine times in the past 14 years, with an infamous 25-5 snub in 2002. It is a program that has given us a memorable, Darnell Archey-led run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2003, and another second-weekend run behind A.J. Graves in 2007. They have won seven Horizon League titles since 2001. Butler is a damn good basketball school.
Which is what makes this special. They aren’t a blind squirrel finding a nut. Rather, they are a quality mid-major that has built to this point and finally gotten to the promised land. It was commonly assumed that Gonzaga – the former posterchild for mid-major success – would be the first non-BCS university to crash the party. Instead, it’s Butler. But either way, their trip validates the long-term success of a handful of mid-majors that have been able to sustain success.
2.) The hometown factor
Although the Michigan State in Detroit theme from last year’s Dance was neat, MSU is 90 miles away from Detroit. Butler is mere miles from Indy. They are the first school to legitimately have a hometown Final Four game since UCLA in 1972 – and I’m willing to wager the Bruins didn’t need the hometown boost. With Butler, though, the fans will be a very influential factor. Which leads me to…
Is there any place more deserving and fitting of this run than Butler and the state of Indiana? Butler, a small-school from basketball-crazy Indianapolis, knocks off more heralded foes en route to an unlikely destination in a prestigious championship event. Seriously? You can’t write this stuff. Someone check the roster, Jimmy Chitwood must be the leading scorer.
There isn’t a state in the union more frequently or passionately associated with the sport of basketball than Indiana. And Indiana is also a blue-collar Midwest state with a bit of an inferiority complex to it (see: ESPN’s Reggie Miller v. Knicks documentary). Now, we have the team that actually plays in the building that saw Milan High miraculously triumph over Muncie High (the basis of the famous movie, which also happened to be filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s home arena), reaching the Final Four in its home city. It is nothing short of a fairytale.
4.) Team identity
Making the powerful story all the more fitting, is that Butler didn’t stray from the state’s basketball genetics in order to reach this peak. Two-thirds of the current roster hails from the Hoosier State, including first- and third-leading scorers, Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard, respectively. Head coach Brad Stevens grew up in an Indianapolis suburb and his team reflects the state’s basketball M.O.
The Bulldogs aren’t tall – Howard holds down the fort in the post at a relatively diminutive 6-8 – but they are efficient with the ball, shoot it well and play hard-nosed defense. As a team, the Horizon League champs shot a healthy 45 percent on the year, with four of the squad’s five starters gunning at clips in excess of 46 percent. They managed a respectable 1.7 turnover margin, and finished ninth in the country in defense, allowing just 59.6 points per game. In other words, not only does Butler represent Indiana this weekend, but they’ve reflected the state’s basketball values all decade.
5.) Who else are you going to root for?
Honestly, come on. Outside of Durham, the state of West Virginia and the state to the north of this year’s finals, there is no acceptable reason not to pull for Butler. Yeah, West Virginia is in its first Final Four since the late-1950s. But they also play in the Big East and have an enrollment more than five times that of Butler. And yes, Michigan State coping with and surviving the loss of its leader, Kalin Lucas, is pretty special. But the Spartans and Tom Izzo have been there six out of the last 12 years – not quite as special anymore, huh? And Duke, well, let’s just say, I don’t think I could come up with three reasons to root for the Blue Devils.
No, instead, indulge yourself and root for the hometown underdog. Let the story suck you in. And as soon as you feel like a chump for doing so, simply revisit this list.