By Brad Thompson–
No matter what happens during Monday night’s NCAA championship game, one school will have a fitting ending to an incredible tournament run. Both UConn and Butler have played outstanding basketball and will have earned the right to call themselves champions, but I’m rooting for Butler. Doesn’t everybody hope for a fairy tale ending?
I have nothing against the Connecticut Huskies. I don’t care that Jim Calhoun is facing sanctions and will have to sit out games next season. Kemba Walker has been nothing short of spectacular. His play is electrifying and entertaining. Quite frankly, it has been enjoyable witnessing a young UConn team grow and excel – the Huskies start three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior.
With all that said, I hope the Butler Bulldogs win. I’ve no allegiance to Butler, but their run this year, coupled with last year’s performance is truly remarkable. For a mid-major or a non-power conference team or whatever you consider Butler, to reach the national championship game in consecutive years in unprecedented.
UNLV was the last team, not from a major conference, to make a comparable run. The Runnin’ Rebels won the title in 1990 and lost in the national semifinals in 1991. The difference between Butler and UNLV is that the Runnin’ Rebels were loaded with NBA talent. UNLV won the championship in the 1990 and, with almost their entire team intact, were expected to win the championship the next season. Even with three first round NBA draft picks (Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony) the Runnin’ Rebels couldn’t advance to consecutive title games.
Butler has nowhere near the NBA talent that UNLV had. Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack are dynamic players and might hear their names called on draft day, but they’re not first round talent. The Bulldogs are doing it by playing as a team and with an unrelenting, hard-nosed defense.
I find myself rooting for Butler because of their style of play. They’re not a high scoring, flashy team. Quite the contrary as a matter of fact, the uglier the game is the better, as far as Butler is concerned. They’re a tough, scrappy team that somehow comes up with all the loose balls. Matt Howard has given us two prime examples of this. He came up with an enormous offensive rebound and putback to extend Butler’s lead to six with 58 seconds to play against VCU and remember his offensive rebound and game-winning basket versus ODU? The Bulldogs seem to be in the right place at the right time and it’s no coincidence, credit their hard work and preparation.
Coach Brad Stevens’ demeanor and attitude is yet another reason why I can’t help but like the Bulldogs. At this point there’s no doubt that he’s a tremendous coach, but what I like the most about him is that he’s still at Butler. After the Bulldogs nearly pulled off an unthinkable upset of Duke in the national championship game last year, Stevens was the hottest coach on the market. Instead of dashing for a prolific program and millions in cash, he stayed at Butler.
By resigning with Butler through the 2021-22 season, Stevens left tens of millions of dollars on the table. Regardless of what Stevens makes this year (Butler didn’t disclosed the terms of his new contract) Butler cannot compete with what his earning potential would be at a big-time school. After turning down money, fame and lavish facilities at another program, Stevens has once again brought his team to the national championship game.
As improbable as last season’s run was for Butler, this year it’s been even more unbelievable. The Bulldogs’ physical, all-out-hustle style of play and their coach’s loyalty have me hoping for a Butler championship on Monday. It’ll be fine if UConn wins, but how much better will Butler’s fairy tale story be if they cut down the nets in Houston?
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.