Butler leading way in NCAA's mid-major march
Some college basketball fans are no doubt looking at the remnants of their first- and second-round NCAA tournament picks with dismay.
They see Saint Mary's, Northern Iowa, Cornell and Xavier inexplicably hanging around. They cringe at the thought of Kansas, Villanova, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh heading home and busting brackets from coast to coast.
What in the name of Dean Smith and Phog Allen is happening to college basketball? Parity.
``Our guys are just like everybody else's guys, they think they can win when they get the opportunity,'' Butler coach Brad Stevens said Monday. ``We've played enough of these games and in these tournaments that they know you're going out and playing basketball and not paying attention to what everyone else is talking about.''
Stevens' team has used this not-so-secret focus to become a prime example of mid-major ascendancy.
Like Gonzaga and Xavier, Butler has become one of the NCAA tourney regulars. All three schools have routinely won early-round games, earning tickets to the second week of the tourney - though George Mason is the only non-BCS school to reach the Final Four since 1979.
And Butler is one of the nation's model programs.
Over the last four seasons, the Bulldogs have won every Horizon League regular-season title, two conference tourney crowns, played in the NCAA tourney all four years and won first-round games three times. They were ranked in the Top 25 most of the past two seasons and have upgraded their nonconference schedule to annually include Big Ten teams and major tournaments.
The Bulldogs (30-4) now own the nation's longest winning streak, 23 games, and a win over top-seeded Syracuse on Thursday night would allow Butler, the Final Four host school, to move within one game of playing the national semifinals just five miles from the Indianapolis campus.
Not that Butler is thinking that big yet.
``The mountain we have to climb is big enough,'' Stevens said, referring to Syracuse. ``To this day, I have not heard our guys mention Indianapolis or Final Four.''
Which program could be next to join Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga?
Try Northern Iowa, which has played in the NCAA tourney five times in the last seven years and finally won its first NCAA game Thursday against UNLV. On Saturday, the Panthers pulled the biggest stunner of the tourney, a 69-67 upset of No. 1 Kansas, a game that rekindled images of then 12th-seeded Butler shocking fourth-seeded Louisville in 2003.
That game changed everything for Butler, and it could do the same for Northern Iowa.
``We got guys that are together for four or five years, and that helps us,'' Panthers coach Ben Jacobson said. ``All four teams are in this position, I think, because of the experience.''
Those who think this year's mid-major victories are an exception are fooling themselves.
Non-BCS programs have become increasingly more competitive since the NCAA reduced the number of men's scholarships from 15 to 13 in 1992 and are now getting more visibility thanks to cable sports networks and the Internet.
These same schools have another built-in advantage by vying for recruits who favor playing time over wearing North Carolina's sky blue or Syracuse's orange.
The Big Red is led by Ryan Wittman, the son of former Indiana sharpshooter Randy Wittman, who couldn't find a home in the Big Ten.
An NCAA scandal at Indiana helped Xavier obtain starting guards Jordan Crawford and Terrell Holloway. Crawford transferred after his freshman season and Holloway backed out of his commitment to the Hoosiers before enrolling. Indiana, meanwhile, finished with a second straight losing season.
But the biggest discrepancy between BCS schools and everyone else may be the unintended advantage non-traditional powers are getting.
``I think teams outside the BCS leagues play with an unbelievable amount of pressure in January and February,'' Stevens said. ``We're expected to win every game and your margin for error is very small. So when you're under that kind of pressure and you get to the tournament, you've played with it for two or three months.''
The result: Victories on the nation's biggest stage.
``I don't know that we're a model for everything,'' Stevens said. ``But I think what happens is that there are just a lot of good basketball teams out there and people are starting to see that.''