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This Weekend, Everyone Ought To Be A Butler Bulldog

It used to be - once upon a time - that the spring was my quiet season, when I didn't really comment that much about sports.  But with Lehigh making it into both the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournament, it's been a lot more compelling to follow all the action and keep a close eye on the proceedings.  (Even though my Villanova/Temple Final four pick seems, in retrospect, crazier than picking Lehigh to upset Kansas in the first round.)

Usually by this time of the tournament, my NCAA pools are busted wide open, the out-of-control athletics departments at, say, North Carolina or Kentucky are looking at winning the national championship, and I'm busy breaking down the offensive and defensive spring rosters for Lehigh football.

But a funny thing happened on the way to inevitability: Butler won me over.  Maybe it's because I'm the fan of a "smaller conference", or maybe it's because I'm genetically programmed to root for the underdog.  But for a multitude of reasons, I'm foursquare on the Butler bandwagon this weekend. (more)

As a Championship Subdivision football guy, my exposure to Butler has generally been of their non-scholarship football program.  As proud as I am of their Pioneer Football league championship and first-ever postseason football victory - a 28-23 win over Central Connecticut State in the "Gridiron Classic" - two more postseason victories, I think, might make a bit more of a stir in Indiana this weekend.

I have been disappointed by Butler before.  When their offense is rolling - and they've rolled through twenty-four straight games - they are unstoppable.  But when their timing is disrupted, good teams have had a tendency to just run right past them and not allow them to 3 their way back into the game.

I picked UTEP to blow by them in the first round, but it didn't take me long to see how wrong I was about this team.  By the time Butler was in the Sweet 16 - and Syracuse bit and clawed to get back a lead against the Bulldogs - Butler kicked in a second gear that I didn't know they had.  Most mid-majors simply collapse late it games - whether it be conditioning, a lack or confidence, or whatever.  The Bulldogs were different.  They managed the game to perfection, first by frustrating Syracuse and then causing Kansas State to come apart in the last few minutes.

Butler wins basketball games the way they're supposed to be won.  Players who are strong mentally, play disciplined basketball and don't get down on themselves.  That's not to patronize Butler and say that their athletes aren't the same caliber as, say, Duke's or West Virginia's.  They can play.  Period.  But they are different than the star-studded teams that simply stockpile talent and watch them go away to the NBA draft after a year or two.

Butler is a dream.  Singlehandedly they disprove the notion that a school commonly considered a mid-major can never be good enough to win a national championship.  It's a dream that I don't want to wake up from.

They make the folks like West Virginia head coach Bob "Prince of Darkness" Huggins, who recently said that the NCAA should make a I-A and I-AA-type tournament in basketball, look incredibly foolish.  Some years, when four No. 1 seeds make the national championship, it's more compelling.  But in a year when Northern Iowa smacked around Kansas, St. Mary's made Villanova look foolish, Murray State took down Vanderbilt and Cornell made the Sweet 16?  The Big Red made it further than almost the entire Big East in this year's tournament, and Huggins wants to set up two tournaments?  Sure.

Butler, like it or not, is the new face of the small school that did.  Move over, George Mason.  Here's head coach Brad Stevens, sophomore G Shelvin Mack and sophomore G/F Jordan Hayward, looking to give the Horizon League their first national champion since 1977 (back when Marquette was a part of that league).  I mean, how can you not root for a team whose head coach looks like he just finished his masters degree at Lehigh and might become an assistant coach - someday - at Iowa?

How can you not root for players that actually look like they do something else other than play PS3 when they're not shooting hoops?

In a world where the Bob Huggins and many in the power conferences try to hold down the Lehigh's as being just "happy to be there" - the myth that teams like Kansas will only need their "C" game to hold down a Lehigh, or a Northern Iowa - if Butler wins the national championship, it will change the world.  Period.

Sure, say all you want that Butler is favored to beat Michigan State, that they're not really a mid-major, that Hayward is a Larry Bird-like talent that comes by once in a generation.  One look at Butler and it's not hard to say - damn - they really could win this whole thing!  By any objective measurement, they're not a mid-major.  They've been in the AP Top 25 for eons.  They beat two great basketball teams in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight in Syracuse and Kansas State.  They dominated two consensus top teams on the boards, holding Syracuse's frontcourt to 14 total points and Kansas State's Dominique Sutton to 0 points.

But they are a mid-major.  They bust the myth that mid-majors are undertalented teams that have to play gimmicks in order to win games.  They out-rebound teams.  They have a method to their madness - off a turnover, they'll take the two, and if you get two they'll nail the three.  If you have a method to the way you play, and you play great fundamental basketball - you might just be a mid-major.  They play great defense.  They're tough.  They play smart basketball.  They play mid-major basketball.  

Face it: you know a mid-major when you see it.  Butler is it.

If Butler wins this whole thing, nobody can ever say again that mid-majors have no place at the dance.  A smart team that plays defense and plays tough can only get so far - so believes so many - in the face of the great one-and-done athletes that so many UConns and North Carolina's have become.

A Butler win would mean that any argument to shunt the Robert Morris', the Morgan State's, the Northwestern State's, the Lehigh's to their own tournament will have one unrebuttable point - Butler's national championship.  Brad Stevens, you don't just have the folks in Indiana on your side this weekend.  You have a whole lot of America's small schools - the ones that aren't given two craps of a chance to win - on your side too.

And you've got me as well.  Bulldogs, go out and make history.


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