DISCLAIMER: This post was originally published in April 2011.
The University of Connecticut Huskies won the 2011 NCAA National Championship on April 4, 2011, defeating the Butler Bulldogs 53-41 for their third title since 1999. In what was truly a mad March in collegiate basketball, the title game might have topped it off.
This game was a case where there had to be one winner, and this is not meant in a good way. On that night, the winner was UCONN, but the Huskies likely would have lost any other game. This time, the opponent was Butler, and the Huskies did just enough to win. When that happens, it’s the basketball fan who loses.
Yet, hopefully history doesn’t remember but the winners-UCONN- in this case. This time, hopefully it also remembers Butler, and not for its futility during the game.
Oh, because Butler was futile enough. In forty minutes of action, the Bulldogs connected on only 12 shots; that’s one field goal made every three minutes 20 seconds. Had Butler tried to shoot this horribly, they likely would have failed. Simply put, whatever it is that UCONN did bad, Butler did worse.
This tournament, however, ended an improbable two-year run for Butler University during which it lost twice in the title game. Six teams have equaled that feat since 1959, and all were from power conferences.
But not Butler, which plays in the Horizon League and has everything of the look of your typical mid-major basketball team. Every year, the mid-major is the cute little story; it can cause an upset here or there in the March Madness tournament, but is quickly overmatched by the country’s biggest programs. Yet, the narrative has changed since 2006 when unknown George Mason University reached the Final Four. Then, Butler burst into the scene in 2010, and has now reached back-to-back title games. What’s more, this year it did so after having lost their best player of a year ago, sophomore Gordon Hayward now with the Utah Jazz, and after at one point having the rather average record of 16-9. Yet, nobody has had a better record over the past two NCAA tournaments than Butler’s 10-2. Teams are not supposed to reach back-to-back title games, especially not teams from minor conferences, and this is what has made Butler’s run so remarkable.
To reach the title game this year, Butler beat teams from major conferences in Pittsburgh (Big East), Wisconsin (Big Ten) and Florida (SEC). The only time, in the past two seasons, that the Bulldogs have appeared to be in over their head is during this year’s title game against UCONN. Otherwise, Butler more than held its own and wasn’t just at the big boys’ dance; more often than not, the Bulldogs were the big boys at the dance.
This is good for the sport. Butler enjoying sustained success is proof, finally, that anybody can win in collegiate athletics. Or perhaps it’s simply proof that the Bulldogs basketball team is not your typical mid-major basketball team. For one, head coaches of Brad Stevens’s quality tend to start at mid-majors, but quickly make the jump to a big-time program; not Stevens, who seems intent on staying at Butler for the time being. Then, mid-majors usually don’t have an NBA lottery pick on their roster like Butler had in Hayward, a 6’8″ swingman. It’s not only Hayward, however; this year, Butler guard Shelvin Mack is projected as a low first round pick.
However you see it, Butler’s is a great story; perhaps even more so because it lost twice in a row in the national championship game.
That Butler team will be remembered for a long time. Its members might not have the trophy to show, but they’ve earned the right to say it loud and proud. ‘I Am Legend.’