Commentators who reacted to Butler's win over Kansas State in the Elite Eight by saying "Get ready for a week of 'Hoosiers' references" were, unknowingly, declaring emphatically that they're not Hoosiers. Nor am I, but I live in their midst. In this respect the Bulldogs and I have much in common.
"Hoosiers" changed all the names, but it did stick pretty close to the real-life story of Milan High School's storied 1954 Indiana state championship. Nevertheless the most prominent new element introduced by screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, an Indiana University graduate, was the character of coach Norman Dale. Coach Dale's vast basketball acumen has been put at the service of tiny Hickory High in rural Indiana because of a volcanic and indeed violent temper that caused him to lose his previous (much better) job. In this way "Hoosiers," despite being set in the 1950s, was playfully au courant at the time of the film's release (November 1986), just as Charles Foster Kane proved to be a compelling object of interest in 1941 because he was so plainly yet daringly patterned after William Randolph Hearst. Dale's similarity to a certain Indiana University coach was unmistakable, and when Steve Alford, Keith Smart, and the Hoosiers went to the 1987 Final Four in New Orleans, the team reportedly screened the movie for inspiration.
Brad Stevens was ten years old when "Hoosiers" premiered. He's 33 now, cerebral, and notably non-volcanic. Indeed I nourish hopes of a Stevens-led return to a more Dean Smith- and John Wooden-style of sideline comportment, one where coaches no longer feel obliged to jump around and wave their arms like overcaffeinated traffic cops. (Coaches waving their arms at their teams has precisely the same efficacy as golfers talking to their shots.) Be that as it may, the fact that everyone thinks that Butler making the Final Four is occasion to talk about a movie written by an Indiana graduate and inspired not only by Milan but also by an Indiana head coach is pretty much the story of the Bulldogs' life in Indianapolis, so to speak. The Bulldogs have long been treated like visitors in their hometown.
Take Hinkle. The Fieldhouse was built on Butler's campus not because a small liberal arts school needed what in 1928 was the largest basketball arena in the United States, but because a consortium of Indy businessmen sought to lock up the Indiana state high school tournament for decades to come. Ground wasn't broken until that lease had been signed. The fact that a Butler basketball team could also play home games there was an afterthought. It's thus been the fate of the Bulldogs, somewhat like the good people at Johnson Wax, to be overshadowed by a spectacular building they see every day.
That is they were overshadowed, until now. The point has been made that this team is no Hickory High. They play incredible defense. Gordon Hayward may be drafted before any other player at the Final Four--and even if he chooses not to avail himself of that early opportunity, the material point is that he's talented enough to do so. The fact that Butler's still alive and playing for a national championship is a natural consequence of on-court justice more than it is a stunning twist. True enough.
But we do Butler something less than true off-court justice if we respond to their tournament run with a yawn. In pure basketball terms it's not amazing that Butler is beating teams like Syracuse and Kansas State on a neutral floor. It is amazing that a university that plays in the Horizon League and that has a total enrollment equivalent to half of Purdue's College of Engineering has been able to assemble a team that can beat opponents like Syracuse and Kansas State. So before you act like you saw this all coming, please read up on your Kyle Whelliston:
On its way to the 2010 Final Four, the Bulldogs did something the other 246 schools in the Other 24 couldn't. They defeated a line of opponents with far more resources, universities with a lot more money to spend on sports than their school has. Butler's overall athletic budget is just over $11 million, and its $1.7 million in men's basketball expenditures put the program halfway down Division I's chart.
Syracuse's annual expenditures on men's basketball alone ($7.7 million) are within instructive shouting distance of Butler's total athletic budget ($11 million). Meaning Ronald Nored doesn't just play outstanding defense, he negates programmatic funding imbalances. That is one handy sophomore.
Besides, if Butler is really such a swaggering behemoth, how come they weren't picked to make it this far? None of us, including those of us here at Prospectus, knew what would happen when an 18-0 Horizon League team took the floor against the best D-I has to offer. What I like about my Prospectus colleagues, though, is that they puzzle over that very question instead of merely throwing up their hands and saying "Butler? Who've they played?"
I'm a professed happy meliorist most of the time, but I'll admit that "Who've they played?" drives me crazy. It's indolent as analysis and dubious as a college hoops ethical premise. "Who've they played?" is ontologically weighted against mid-majors. All any team can do is play the games they get. If a MAC team went undefeated in-conference and won every game by an average score of 112-8, we'd recognize any deployment of "Who've they played?" as obdurately facile. For my part the next time I see a team that outscores the Horizon League by 0.21 points per trip, one that appears to be improving as they get further into the season, I will think to myself: "Final Four caliber."
We college basketball fans are in the habit of celebrating a post-season that gives a team like Butler the chance to shine (though I still think UTEP was a pointedly dangerous 12-seed), but for me Butler's presence in Indy speaks well not only of the tournament but also the sport. Those of us who venerate the tournament in its current form do so in part because we trust its results, even as we acknowledge that anything can happen in a single-elimination format. Northern Iowa can beat Kansas, Ohio can beat Georgetown, and with just a bounce here and tip-in there, Butler very well could have lost in the second round to Murray State. Yet somehow, the Bulldogs made it through.
I like a sport that can get a team from the CAA or the Horizon through to the Final Four. Without the occasional George Mason or Butler, the post-season access given to programs outside the "major" conferences would be viewed as merely quaint, an empty formality. With the examples furnished by the Patriots and the Bulldogs, we know--or should--that underdog programs can produce teams that should be favored, by oddsmakers as well as by screenwriters.
John tries his best to avoid being obdurately facile on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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