NCAA Tournament: Butler Becoming the Benchmark for Mid-Major Success
Twelve years ago, a little known school from Spokane, Wash. caught the attention of the nation as they made an impressive run to the Sweet 16 of the Men’s NCAA Tournament.
This would just be the tip of iceberg, as Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs would usher in a new age of college basketball, one where a mid-major team can be a regular force in the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga has been a regular fixture in the tournament; however, despite all the accolades and praise the team has earned over the years, they have yet to make it past the Sweet 16.
Enter the Butler Bulldogs.
Even before Gordon Hayward just missed what would had been the most polarizing shot in the history of college basketball, the Butler Bulldogs were making their own claim as the top dog of the mid-major schools.
Since the 2000 season, Butler has qualified for the NCAA Tournament an impressive eight times, and of all those trips to the tourney, only once did they fail to qualify for the second round.
Despite all of the success, it appeared that Butler was doomed to be the little mid-major brother to national darling Gonzaga.
Then the 2010 tournament started.
Butler entered the tournament as a No. 5 seed, and as most NCAA enthusiasts will tell you, was an unfavorable draw, as No. 12 seeds tend to perform well against No. 5 seeds and their is usually one upset in the tournament.
Is Butler the most feared Mid-Major Program in College Basketball?
Butler was unfazed by this draw, as they impressively handled No. 12 seed UTEP by 18 points. Butler next drew the No. 13 seed upstarts from Murray State. The Bulldogs were able to prevail in a two point nail bitter that has become their M.O. in the tournament.
Butler once again found themselves in the Sweet 16, this time paired up against No. 1 seed Syracuse. Unlike their mid-major brothers from Gonzaga, Butler was able to overcome a No. 1 seed and qualify for the Elite Eight for the first time.
Many thought that the Butler magic would come to an end as they played a scorching hot Kansas State squad in the Elite Eight. The teams would play in a back and forth affair before the Bulldogs proved the mettle and pulled away late in the second half.
By virtue of their win against Kansas State, Butler had advanced to the Final Four for the first time in the school’s history, and as fate would have it, the finals would be held in the team’s backyard in Indianapolis.
After sweating out another frantic and dramatic finish against tournament staple Michigan State, Butler had done the unthinkable and advanced to the national championship game against Duke.
Many thought Duke would outclass Butler in the finals, but that was anything but the case. Gordon Hayward led a tenacious and motivated Butler squad that would not back down from the heavily favored Blue Devils.
The game was back and forth throughout and after Brian Zoubek intentionally missed the second of his two free throws, Hayward launched a half-court shot that was this close to leading the Bulldogs to the national championship.
Just like that the dream was over, and although the Bulldogs had become the new national darlings, the outlook for this season was not as promising. With Gordon Hayward declaring for the NBA draft, the Bulldogs would be missing the heart and soul of their team.
The Bulldogs struggled at times this season, going on a four game losing streak against less than impressive competition in late January. Things looked bleak, as questions arose if the Bulldogs were even tournament worthy.
Once the Horizon League Conference Tournament started all that changed. Butler established their conference dominance en route the to the title game, where they avenged two regular season losses to the University of Milwaukee and won the conference tournament.
The expectations for the Bulldogs this tournament were modest at best. Some pundits were skeptical that Butler would be able to beat No. 9 seed Old Dominion in the first round, and few if any thought they would be able to beat No. 1 Pittsburgh.
Of course, no one was paying attention last season, as Matt Howard led the Bulldogs to two heart-stopping wins as Butler advanced to the Sweet 16 again. This past Thursday, Butler handled No. 4 seed Wisconsin by seven, which was essentially a blowout for Butler.
We are now just hours away from Butler’s Elite Eight matchup with the Florida Gators, and maybe a few hours from Butler doing the unthinkable, qualifying for consecutive trips to the Final Four, a feat that is extremely difficult for any program, let alone a mid-major program.
Regardless of what happens today and throughout the rest of the tournament, Butler has proven that it belongs in the conversation when it comes to most dangerous tournament teams.
And it seems to safe to say that Butler has dethroned Gonzaga as top dog of the mid-major programs.
Somewhere, Adam Morrison is crying.
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