Benner/Sports and NCAA and Final Four and Butler University and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Who might be this year's Butler? Maybe Butler

March 12, 2011

A year ago this week, the Butler men’s basketball team was preparing to play the University of Texas-El Paso in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Who knew what was about to unfold?

Well, Tom King knew. Or at least he believed.

King, a Butler alumnus, was co-chairman of the local organizing committee for last year’s Men’s Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium.

At meetings, King always would remind those in attendance that Butler, officially sanctioned by the NCAA as an institutional co-host of the Final Four, also would be represented by its basketball team.

Of course, every time he would offer that prediction, it would be greeted by chuckles.

Butler in the Final Four? Yeah, right, Tom. A romantic notion to be certain, but romance has no place in the world of big-time college athletics.

Or does it?

Thus, the allure of March Madness and the NCAA Tournament and its ability to captivate us. Yes, as it begins this week with its new, 68-team format—tipping off with a “First Four” in Dayton, Ohio—we fully expect that the Final Four in Houston’s Reliant Stadium will be composed of teams from the so-called power conferences.

They are the ones with all the resources … the glistening arenas, unlimited recruiting budgets, national television exposure and, in the case of members of the Big Ten, even their own television network.

But in creating the opportunity for the little guy, the NCAA has given its showcase event exactly the kind of magic that football’s Bowl Championship Series—run by those power conferences and Notre Dame—lacks.

Under its current format, the BCS never will have the likes of a Butler, or a George Mason University, which crashed the 2006 Final Four (also in Indy at the RCA Dome) out of the Colonial Athletic Association.

In fairness, Butler, while a wonderful story last year, was not a major underdog. The Bulldogs carried a No. 5 seed into the tournament and had to survive a second-round upset bid by No. 13 Murray State before it did its giant-killing of Kansas State, Syracuse and Michigan State to reach the title game against Duke.

By comparison, George Mason was an 11 seed when it got to the Final Four.

The lowest-seeded team ever to win it all was Villanova (eighth), upsetting Big East Rival Georgetown in 1985. North Carolina State was a No. 7 seed when it took it all in 1983. But, again, those are two teams from “power” conferences.

Because of the upsets that are sure to come, I enjoy the opening weekend as much, if not more, than the Final Four. It’s 14th-seeded Cleveland State knocking off Indiana (1986). It’s No. 13 Valparaiso and Bryce Drew hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Mississippi State in 1998. It’s 13th-seeded Princeton sidelining defending national champion UCLA in 1996 (at the RCA Dome). It’s Ball State as a 12 seed beating both Oregon State and Louisville in 1990 or Indiana State as a 13 seed upsetting Oklahoma in 2001.

Bracketologists are quick to point out that no No. 16-seed ever has dispatched a No. 1, but there have been several near-hits. Purdue fans will recall the top-seeded Boilermakers escaping with a 73-71 first-round victory over Western Carolina in 1996. In 1989, Georgetown outlasted 16th-seeded Princeton, 50-49, but only after Alonzo Mourning blocked two shots at the end. That same year, No. 1-seeded Oklahoma had to hang on to defeat East Tennessee State in the first round.

There have been, however, four victories for 15 seeds over two seeds. Richmond beat Syracuse in 1991, Santa Clara took out Arizona in 1993, Coppin State defeated South Carolina in 1997, and Hampton upset Iowa State in 2001.

So settle in, locate the “boss” button on the work computer, and get ready for the first-week upsets.

And as for who might be this year’s Butler, well how about … Butler? Coach Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs looked like anything but an NCAA team when they lost at Youngstown State in late January. Their third straight defeat dropped them to 14-9 overall and 6-5 in the Horizon League.

They haven’t lost since, sweeping nine in a row to claim a share of the Horizon League regular-season title, the tournament championship and a fifth straight bid to the NCAA tournament.

Not sure even Tom King could have predicted that.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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