After a stellar first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the mid-majors and Cinderella teams of the college basketball world came crashing back to earth in the Sweet 16 round the last two nights.
Really this should come as no surprise, as it seems almost every year that the top seeds assert their dominance during the second weekend of the tournament.
Occasionally, an unheard of mid-major like Gonzaga in 1999 or Davidson in 2008 will slip its way into the Elite Eight and prolong its Cinderella run by another couple of days.
And every once in a while—well, really just once in recent memory—a Cinderella mid-major squad will make it all the way to the Final Four like George Mason did in 2006.
But for a moment, this year seemed different because of the unprecedented success of teams from outside the six major conferences in the first two rounds of the tournament.
Five of the final 16 participants—Cornell, Butler, Xavier, St. Mary’s, and Northern Iowa—in this year’s tournament came from outside of the six major conferences in college basketball.
And none of those five teams looked like your typical long shot Cinderella whose glass ceiling appeared to be the Sweet 16 from the moment they got there.
St. Mary’s, with big man Omar Sahman, dominated No. 7 seed Richmond in the first round and pulled away from No. 2 Villanova late in round two.
Cornell trounced both No. 5 Temple and No. 4 Wisconsin by double digits, and looked capable of shooting any team right out of the building with their three-point prowess, even the mighty Kentucky team they were slated to face in the Sweet 16.
Xavier already had a history of NCAA Tournament success to rely on, and didn’t have too much trouble in dispatching Minnesota and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds as a No. 6 seed.
No. 9 seed Northern Iowa looked the best of all after dispatching Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, in the second round and drawing a Michigan St. squad in the Sweet 16 that was shorthanded without its best player, Kalin Lucas.
If there was one of the five mid-major schools that didn’t prove anything on the first weekend of the tournament and looked destined to bow out with ease in the Sweet 16, it was Butler.
The Bulldogs came into the tournament as a No. 5 seed, the highest ranked of any of the schools from the non-power conferences that survived the first weekend.
In the first round they ultimately dispatched No. 12 seed UTEP by a fair margin, but only after trailing at the half. In the second round they drew No. 13 seed Murray State, which had conveniently already knocked out No. 4 Vanderbilt, and once again Butler trailed at the half. This time the Bulldogs did not pull away, however, and the game came down to the final possession before Butler held on 54-52.
Drawing No. 1 seed Syracuse in the Sweet 16 seemed like bad news for the Bulldogs. Along with Kentucky, Syracuse looked in the best form of any of the top seeds during the first weekend of the tournament.
Yet Butler jumped out to an early lead, pushed it to double digits, fell behind late, and ultimately managed to outplay the Orange down the stretch with a couple of key turnovers and three-point shots in a closely contested and low scoring 63-59 game.
It wasn’t the flashiest of victories, much like their first two, but it was enough for Butler to make it through to the Elite Eight and draw a date with No. 2 seed Kansas State at 4:30 PM EST this afternoon.
The other mid-majors that stole the headlines and showed so much pizazz in the first weekend of the tournament fizzled out with hardly much of a fight, with the exception of Xavier (which lost in double overtime to Kansas St.) and to some extent Northern Iowa (which led by seven against Michigan St. at halftime).
So with only eight teams left in the draw, the role of Cinderella belongs solely to Butler.
Some will say that Butler doesn’t qualify for the role of a mid-major or Cinderella because they were a No. 5 seed and have experienced some level of success in the tournament throughout the last decade.
There is no denying that Butler is a known commodity with a proven track record. The Bulldogs have dominated the Horizon League for the last decade, reached 10 of the last 14 NCAA Tournaments, including four straight, made it to three Sweet 16s, and hold a respectable No. 5 seed in this year’s draw.
Yet one must remember that this is the deepest the Bulldogs have ever played into March.
And everything else about this school, starting with its small enrollment of 4,000 students, calls out mid-major and Cinderella.
If you glance down the roster, the Bulldogs look much different from most of the teams remaining in this tournament.
Aside from a little-used 6'11" freshman center, Butler doesn’t have a single player on its roster taller than 6'9". Two-thirds of the team hails from the school's home state of Indiana, and the other one-third all hails from the southeast, indicating that Butler is limited, and its recruiting pipeline and budget only go so deep and so far.
While the Bulldogs have some talented players on the current roster like Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, and Gordon Hayward, Butler is not competing for the very top national recruits. Most elite college basketball programs have NBA talent on their roster, yet Butler hasn’t sent a player to the NBA since the 1970s.
Many comparisons will be made between Butler and Gonzaga, another school from a mid-major conference that has experienced sustained success over the last decade and proven itself as more than just your typical mid-major, but Gonzaga has in recent years filled its roster with future NBA players, such as Austin Daye, Dan Dickau, Ronny Turiaf, and Adam Morrison.
Butler has not.
That’s why the Bulldogs should still be considered a mid-major. They might be the best mid-major of the last decade, and unlike most mid-majors they aren’t in danger of falling off the face of the college basketball planet when a class of current star players graduate, but they are still a mid-major.
Their relatively weak conference, reliance on local in-state recruiting, undersized roster, scrappy style of basketball, and general lack of future NBA talent proves that.
Perhaps, Butler would rather not be thought of as a mid-major at this point, but it is truly a compliment that makes the success they have had over the last decade all that more impressive. Being a mid-major doesn’t mean you’re a one or two-year wonder, don’t have talented players (perhaps even future pros), and can’t contend for Sweet 16s and Final Fours year after year.
It just means that you are exceptional if you can accomplish that.
And Butler has the chance to prove that and lead the way for all the mid-major programs across the country today by advancing from their first Elite Eight, to their first Final Four, to their first championship game, all the way to their first NCAA Tournament Championship.
As a No. 5 seed with a proven track record, Butler wasn’t a Cinderella during the first weekend of the tournament, but now with just eight teams left—two from the SEC, two from the Big 12, one from the Big Ten, one from the Big East, one from the ACC, and one from the Horizon League—that role belongs to them once again.
It is Butler’s turn to take that mantle back from St. Mary’s, Northern Iowa, and Cornell, and compete with the elites and power conference teams of college basketball for a trip to the Final Four just miles from its hometown, and ultimately a National Championship.
If the past is any indication, this round (or possibly the next) is where a team like Butler should bow out of this tournament, but that is why they are now the Cinderella of this NCAA Tournament worth rooting for.