TERRE HAUTE —
For the Missouri Valley Conference beat writers, it’s an annual rite at the MVC men’s basketball tournament — the expansion discussion.
Expansion candidates are bandied about, and/or, current members schools are kicked out in a late night roundtable that’s not always grounded in common sense, has less than zero influence on actual league policy, but is always lively.
How does Indiana State fare in these discussions? Oh boy. Well … you probably don’t want to know. Lack of recent basketball success, a small market compared to other Valley locales, and most of all — a near-permanent spot as the conference bottom-feeder in men’s basketball attendance — means the Sycamores are one of the first schools on the chopping block.
Once ISU is booted (usually joined by Evansville), talk turns to expansion candidates. The usual suspects are rounded up — Saint Louis, Oral Roberts, Missouri-Kansas City, Xavier, Dayton.
And Butler. That’s when I’d chime in. In no way, shape or form did I think Butler was a good fit. It’s an argument I made as recently as four weeks ago.
The arguments for Butler advanced by those outside Indiana were primarily based on its recent basketball success and the idea that its inclusion would break open an Indianapolis market that has always been very stubborn to accept the MVC.
My counter-argument had nothing to do with Butler’s basketball success ... of that there’s no doubt. Butler has been king of the state’s mid-majors for at least five years running and have reached a summit no state mid-major team aside from the 1979 Sycamores have ever come close to matching.
My case was based on the notion that Butler’s inclusion would open up the Indianapolis market. All one had to do was see the wide open spaces of empty seats at Hinkle Fieldhouse at a typical Butler home game to know how Indianapolis has felt about Butler basketball for the vast majority of the Bulldogs’ Division I existence.
No one cared.
Butler’s basketball perception has always been that of the school with the cool gym and not much more. Even today, most Indy fans’ shared experience at Hinkle is via the high school basketball playoffs more so than any one memorable Butler home game.
Even as it entered the national picture in the mid-2000s, Butler’s attendance was, frankly, embarrassing by the standards of a Top 25 team and would have consistently placed in the bottom of the MVC’s average figures. Butler finally saw a significant increase this season when it averaged 6,852 per home game, an average that would have been good for fourth in the MVC, just barely edging Missouri State and Illinois State.
But that’s not the historic norm. When A.J. Graves was a senior and the team was nationally-ranked at 30-4 in 2008, Butler’s average attendance was 5,905 which would have ranked seventh in the MVC. As recently as 2006, Butler’s attendance was below that of the much-maligned Sycamores.
Moreover, Butler has never had a local TV deal of consequence, and while the Dawgs are media darlings now, they’ve never been a priority for the local Indy media compared to the Colts, Pacers, Indiana and Purdue, among others. Indy would have its brief fling with Butler during March Madness and then would find something else to fancy.
My essential argument was it was going to take something really, really drastic to get Indianapolis to galvanize behind Butler and make the Bulldogs a permanent part of the local sports culture.
Clearly, that fuse was has been lit with Butler’s Final Four run. The ensuing explosion of interest has captivated Indianapolis ... and beyond.
For the first time — well, maybe ever — the Bulldogs are the talk of Indy beyond just a back-handed, “Oh Butler? They’re cute ... when’s the IU game on?” level of interest. The bandwagon is going so fast it set a new track record at IMS.
It makes the argument against Butler joining the MVC seem really silly in retrospect, but it made sense four weeks ago. Butler’s Final Four run has changed the paradigm that drastically.
Win or lose, it’ll be interesting to see whether Butler can sustain the interest. If all of the Butler flags, T-shirts and billboards that currently define Indy cool are still abundant next October, then the Bulldogs might be able to finally transcend the apathy they’ve historically endured.
At that point, it would be silly to argue against their theoretical inclusion in the MVC. Time will tell.
• My crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear — It’s a tradition like no other ... hastily put together Major League Baseball predictions for 2010!
NL East — Phillies, Braves, Mets, Marlins, Nationals
NL Central — Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Pirates
NL West — Rockies, Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks
AL East — Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Orioles, Blue Jays
AL Central — Tigers, Twins, White Sox, Indians, Royals
AL West — Rangers, Angels, Mariners, Athletics.
NL playoffs — Phillies over Giants; Rockies over Cardinals; Rockies over Phillies.
AL playoffs — Yankees over Tigers; Red Sox over Rangers; Yankees over Red Sox.
World Series — Yankees over Rockies in 6.
Take it to the bank. Or don’t if you’re interested in hanging on to your money.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.