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March 31, 2011

B-SIDES: Butler, Virginia Commonwealth tearing down NCAA elitist walls

TERRE HAUTE — Mid-majors put the madness in March.

There is great wailing and gnashing of teeth by college basketball old-schoolers over the presence of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in this weekend’s NCAA Final Four. They moan about the Bulldogs’ regular-season losses to pedestrian opponents such as Youngstown State and Wright State, and VCU’s defeats at the hands of unheralded Northeastern and Georgia State. They scoff at their conference pedigrees — Butler competes in the Horizon League, and the Rams (that’s VCU) are members of the Colonial Athletic Association.

But the most revolting development, in the elitists’ eyes, is the potential for this to happen again. And again.

That would be beautiful.

The NCAA’s Berlin Wall appears to be coming down. The mid-majors have chipped away at it for more than a decade. Gonzaga cracked it deeply in 1999, taking eventual NCAA champ Connecticut down to the final minute of the regional final. George Mason broke off a chunk when the Patriots dismissed Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and UConn en route to the 2006 Final Four. Last year, Butler crashed a bulldozer into the wall, coming within inches of beating the sport’s royal family, the Duke Blue Devils, in the title game.

This year, the Butler Bulldogs and VCU Rams are standing atop the wall with jackhammers, ready to finish it off.Will they do it? Who knows? The 2011 tourney has shattered old-school expectations. Usually, if a national unknown such as Valparaiso or Bradley cracked the Sweet Sixteen, some “power conference” team would snuff out their insurgency in the regional round. The upstarts would get a pat on the head for a “nice run,” Billy Packer would proudly declare that the cream had — as always — risen to the top, and the sport’s usual suspects would get down to the serious business.

Not this year. For the first time since seeding began in 1979, no No. 1s or No. 2s reached the Final Four.

Instead, college basketball’s old guard must rely on a 3-seed, Connecticut, and a 4-seed, Kentucky to preserve tradition. As bad luck would have it, though, the Huskies and Wildcats must play each other in Saturday night’s NCAA semifinal. In Monday night’s championship, that winner faces the survivor of Saturday’s other semifinal between eighth-seeded Butler and 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth.

The odds of Butler defeating either UConn or Kentucky in the title game are fairly steep, at 13 to 4, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, while VCU’s chances of taking the championship are even more uphill, at 9 to 2. (Kentucky is the favorite, at 7 to 5, while Connecticut is next at 9 to 4.) Then again, before the tournament started way back on March 15, Virginia Commonwealth’s odds of winning the national championship were 203,187 to 1, and Butler’s were 2,506 to 1, according to ESPN.com.

The early demise of familiar tourney faces hasn’t diminished public interest. Television ratings for the tournament, so far, are the best they’ve been since 1993, according to Nielsen Media Research numbers cited by Bloomberg.com. Americans enjoy watching a previously disregarded bunch of players take on the giants. That’s precisely why the 1979 duel between Larry Bird and Indiana State against Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State remains the highest-rated NCAA Final broadcast in history.

The Sycamores fell short of the title, though, by 11 points. Florida ended George Mason’s run in the 2006 semifinals. Last year, Butler lost its championship bid by a basket to Duke.

What if the Bulldogs or the Rams finally broke through this year?

Well, a VCU title would be hard to explain for experts who fiercely complained the Rams didn’t deserve to make the field. They huffed that a fourth-place team from the Colonial Athletic Conference shouldn’t receive an at-large berth over power-league teams such as Colorado (tied for fifth in the Big 12 Conference), or Virginia Tech (tied for fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference). In response, VCU had to win a “first-four” play-in game against Southern Cal, and then romped over Georgetown (of the Big East), Purdue (Big Ten), Florida State (ACC) and Kansas (Big 12) by an average margin of 12 points. The Rams earned their keep.

Of course, the rationalizations are flowing. The one most often cited is that the top players at “high-majors” leave for the NBA before becoming upperclassmen, while the mid-majors’ lineups feature smaller but more mature seniors. Perhaps. But did anybody notice the clutch plays by Butler freshmen Chrishawn Hopkins and Khyle Marshall in the Bulldogs’ win over Florida on Saturday?

Maybe Butler, VCU, Gonzaga, George Mason, Valparaiso and all of their middle-sized brethren have gradually lost their awe for the opponents from the Big East, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten. Maybe the marquee coaches are getting out-foxed by guys like Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart. Maybe the mid-major players know how to win, too.

If Butler or VCU cut down the nets on Monday night in Houston, it won’t be a fluke.

And it won’t be the last time a mid-major shakes up the NCAA Tournament. The wall is crumbling down.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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