A piece of history was made last night in Indianapolis. Duke won a basketball game 61-59 over a tiny school in Indianapolis, and but for the curse of some unkind rims go Butler into the history of the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs lost the game, but by playing the way they did, as strong as they did, with not one but two chances to still win the game at the end, they won the respect of the entire country. The world knows they were two rims away from doing what was unthinkable going into the tournament: really, really win the whole damned thing.
It's a bit of a cliche to say that "there are no losers out here tonight", as Jim Nantz said in his broadcast last night, in a game that will be right up there with Villanova in 1985 and North Carolina State in 1983 as one of the greatest championship games of all time. But it's true. At no time did anyone watching that game think Duke ran away with this. Not one person could watch that game and say, "this Bulldog team should just be happy to be here". It took an all-out effort - by Duke's players and coaches - to win this game. Butler came up short - a couple of rims short - but their run shows that the championship is no longer an exclusive club. (more)
In tonight's women's NCAA tournament bracket, UConn will - unsurprisingly, many think - face off against Stanford for women's basketball supremacy. Together they own eight of the twenty-seven women's championships since 1982, and UConn should be the prohibitive favorite as they ride an 77 game winning streak going into tonight's championship (their last loss coming to, ironically, Stanford). No wonder it's being billed as "Clash of the Titans". (A guess: I don't think Liam Neeson is going to show up in the pregame and bellow, "Send in the serpents!" Though it might make the game more interesting.)
Currently, the gap from the top to the bottom in women's hoops is striking. All you need to do is look to Lehigh for proof, who went 29-3 during the regular season but got drilled 79-42 by Iowa State in the first round in what was in effect a home game for the Lady Cyclones. Iowa State made it all the way to the Sweet 16 - where they proceeded to lose to UConn 74-36. (Lady Cyclone Bill Fennelly said after the game, "I don't think I've had a whipping like that since I was a little kid and I broke something of my mom's.")
By the women's Sweet 16, not a single team that plays football in FCS remained in the women's tournament, and only two survived through the first round (Dayton and Georgetown). Only two teams that you could call mid-major (Xavier and Gonzaga) made it into the Sweet 16 - and after Xavier beat the Lady Zags 74-56, Xavier gave Stanford a major scare after falling after a late Cardinal layup by a 55-53 score in what passes for drama in this tournament.
The women's tournament has their share of historic small-school upsets in their history - Old Dominion's 1985 national championship, for example, Marist's run to the Sweet 16 a year ago, or 16 seed Harvard upsetting 1 seed Stanford (after, granted, Stanford's two best players got hurt near the end of the year). But if there's an NCAA sport where you can truly see where money makes a difference, it's the women's NCAA tournament. There are only two schools that have ever made the final that don't currently play FBS football: Old Dominion and Division II Cheney State, who competed in the first championship game in 1983.
Folks have tried very hard to demonstrate that money fatally unbalances men's basketball, too. But despite Butler's loss yesterday, that bracket is busted wide open.
It's a strange world out there in college basketball. From Bob Huggins' strange rebranding as a lovable coach concerned about his players, to the ever-escalating salaries of its head coaches (Fordham just paid $600,000 a year for their new basketball coach? Really?), it's as big an industry as ever - and the "student"-athletes in general look less and less like students and more like hired guns that are there to make baskets and refine their Playstation 3 skills.
(I ever wonder about many of those mid-majors as well in terms of the dark arts of basketball recruiting as well. Did anyone else raise an eyebrow when St. Mary's was loaded with 23 year old juniors from Australia's junior national team? It makes P.J. "Starring... the 26 Year Old Senior Andrew Gaze" Carlisemo look like a humanitarian in comparison. And, yes, I'm looking at you too, Gonzaga.)
I'm not so naive to think that Butler - and most certainly not Duke - is exempt from these dark arts. But the dark arts are clearly not everything. Butler didn't make it there because of recruiting man children, giving them private tutors and sequestering them so they can concentrate on basketball. They did it because they have a head basketball coach that is a brilliant basketball mind (Brad Stevens) got some pretty good players that slipped through the cracks (like Gordon Hayward) and got every player to buy into his Bulldog-like defense, fight-and-claw-for-rebounds philosophy. Never be afraid to drive the lane, you just have to want the basketball more, timing is more important than height.
It sounds corny to say that heart and mind counted for more than just talent in this year's tournament, but it seems like the inescapable conclusion from this year's final. But importantly for all the small schools out there - those that dream of someday being where Butler was last year - there's a roadmap. It starts with heart and mind, having a system and having your total heart and belief in that system.
I can't escape the comparisons to Appalachian State's upset of Michigan in football a few years ago. Folks said at first that a I-AA/FCS team would never beat an FBS team. When it was shown they could beat FBS teams quite regularly, it was then thought that they couldn't beat anyone in a BCS conference. When Montana State upset Colorado 19-10, folks then said that, well, FCS can beat crappy FBS teams, but "real" BCS teams like Michigan would wipe the floor with the Mountaineers - a nice tune-up for the season.
Instead, head coach Jerry Moore took a bunch of guys that slipped through the cracks in recruiting, and gave them belief in the system they were running. He recruited guys with heart and mind, and total belief in the system. And they took down the No. 5 team in the country - in a sold-out Big House - with much of the same type of philosophy.
It's the same way with Butler today. Folks thought a "mid-major" didn't realistically in this day and age couldn't dream of winning a championship - at first. When George Mason proved it was possible, folks said "that was a one-time fluke, they'll never make it there consistently".
Now Butler has proven that not only is that not true, they were two rims away from winning the whole damned thing. Someday - maybe not next year, but soon - a mid-major will.