Butler's basketball success as a 'mid-major' a rare feat

May 15, 2010

Butler coach Brad Stevens never wanted to play the copycat game.

So the young coach with the old-school approach sought players with a relentless work ethic and a preference for teamwork. He brought in defenders with a penchant for making 3-pointers and guys who would stay long enough to teach their young teammates the key lessons.

It's a rare approach in a world increasingly ruled by one-and-dones.

"I think you have to stay true to what you believe in," Stevens said. "You admire people's blueprints and you're always trying to learn how to become better at what you do. We're not exactly like those other (non-BCS) schools. We just have to find our niche and sell it."

The Bulldogs are one of a handful of "mid-major" teams that have carved out a spot on the national map with a simple strategy: You win by being yourself.

Xavier and Gonzaga were there before Butler. George Mason made a brief appearance with its 2006 Final Four run, and it's almost certain more schools will join the pack.

Suddenly, schools that once relied on the big boys' leftovers are recruiting their own big-time players and getting more television opportunities because the networks need to fill air time. All those NCAA tourney upsets have shown how much parity exists, and those who doubt whether non-BCS schools can win national titles only have to be reminded of the close calls by George Mason, Memphis and Butler.

Getting attention is one thing.

Maintaining success is a tricker proposition.

Power conference schools balk at the idea of playing nonconference road games, especially ones they could lose. If they're going to play a Butler, it's going to be on a neutral court.

Other "mid-majors" view games against Xavier, Gonzaga or Butler as their chance to make headlines, and league games in non-BCS conferences become more competitive when you're carrying a Top 25 ranking.

What's the secret to success?

"We have an administration that has really placed a great emphasis on the basketball program. They want us to do extremely well because when we do, it benefits everyone at the university," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Second, we have really good players. The one thing we've managed to keep is balance among our classes. We've never really had that class where we graduate six seniors."

The consistently strong results have been just as impressive.

Gonzaga has played in every NCAA tourney since 1999, when it reached the regional finals, and has been to the regional semis four times since then. Xavier has 19 tourney appearances in 25 years, reaching the Sweet 16 four times since 2004, including two regional final appearances. Butler has made seven NCAA appearances since 2000, advancing five times, reaching three Sweet 16s and this year's national championship game.

And each of those schools compiled its resume knowing it would have been left out of the NCAA tourney without a conference tourney title.

It's no longer a fleeting trend, either.

Butler, Cornell, Northern Iowa, Saint Mary's and Xavier were among the last 16 teams in this year's tourney.

Three national runner-ups since 1998 — Utah, Memphis and Butler — and four of the last 11 national players of the year — Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin, Xavier's David West, Saint Joseph's Jameer Nelson, and Utah's Andrew Bogut — all came from non-BCS schools.

With conference expansion around the corner, some of these programs could find themselves entertaining offers from the power leagues.

Even if they don't, Stevens thinks the rise of the mid-majors is just beginning.

"I think there's a lot of people that can make that run, I really do," he said. "I thought the team we played in the first round, UTEP, was terrific. I thought Murray State could have made a run. I think there's a lot of teams capable of that. Kansas won the championship a couple of years ago and beat Davidson by two points, so they were right there, too."

Who's next? Perhaps Northern Iowa, with five NCAA tourney appearances since 2004. The Panthers won their first two tourney games in March and produced the biggest win in school history with a second-round upset of top-seeded Kansas.

Like Xavier, Gonzaga and Butler, Northern Iowa is following the plan by trying to upgrade its schedule and expand its recruiting base.

The Panthers now play Iowa or Iowa State every year, compete in the BracketBuster and are attempting to schedule home-and-home series with schools from similarly competitive conferences such as the Atlantic 10.

While recruiting still focuses primarily on the home state, it now includes Kansas City and St. Louis. Yet coach Ben Jacobson believes little has changed within the program.

"I feel like it's important that we continue to do the things that we've done, and at the same time take a hard look at ourselves and see if there are some areas where we can improve to help our program continue to move forward," he said. "Sticking to the plan, that is important, while at the same time taking a hard look at different things."

Reaching the next level, though, takes more than a solid schedule and 20 wins.

"You have to be able to be competitive in those (big) games," Xavier's Mack said. "You're not going to win every one of them. But if you're willing to play anyone at any time and be very competitive in those games, it gives your kids a sense of confidence they can play against the best. It hardens you for conference play."

That can be a big benefit to a school that knows not all leagues are created equal.

The biggest gap between the power conferences and the non-BCS schools, Stevens contends, is the pressure in non-BCS leagues. While the Big East, Big Ten and ACC spend three months beating up on each other, poll voters penalize Butler, Gonzaga or Northern Iowa more harshly for a stumble in conference play.

"The most difficult thing is being held to a perfect standard in January and February," Stevens said. "Every time Gonzaga loses in league, people throw up their arms and say how can that happen? The bottom line is there's not much difference between us winning the league and us finishing third in the league. That's the biggest thing that I'd love to see this run do is continue to open up doors for."

Don't count on it.

But the Bulldogs have certainly changed some perceptions.

Butler proved that a non-BCS school could win a national championship, and Stevens believes it will happen — if smaller schools devise a plan and follow it.

"I think teams have been knocking on that door for a long time," he said. "I really don't believe it's fair to put us in a separate category because we made a run to the Final Four. The hardest thing is winning your league and getting into the tournament and then in a one-and-done, anything can happen."


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