It doesn’t take much to build a winning basketball program. Just wins and consistency and star players and loyalty and, oh right, lots and lots of wins. Big wins. Tournament wins. And yet, there are programs across the country that have done the winning part but still been thwarted on the way to lasting prominence by some unlucky combination of coaching attrition, failures in recruiting and/or the wrong bounce of the ball happening a few too many times.
This is what makes Butler University so fascinating. With this year’s return to the Final Four, Butler is emerging as a legitimate basketball power—a title very few so-called “mid-major” programs can claim. Butler is part of an unofficial Axis of Mid-Majors that reaches from Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., to Butler in Indianapolis, to Cincinnati, where, for more than a decade, Xavier University has been a cradle of coaching and NBA talent. Each of these schools has similar enrollment numbers; each plays in a non-BCS conference; and each has a modern history of basketball excellence that puts it on par with all but a select few programs around the country.
But where Gonzaga and Xavier have yet to break through and take that final step to the Final Four (and beyond?), Butler is carving out a whole new profile for the mid-major team. If George Mason’s stunning run to the Final Four in 2006 was the first real mid-major breakthrough in the modern era, Butler’s two-season run represents a new world in which a small school with big dreams can claim a legitimate chance to win it all and in the process build a potential dynasty off the traditional power grid.
Butler’s being celebrated by many as a Cinderella story, but it’s worth remembering that this team came within a few inches of winning the national title last season. THE national title. As in, the only one. This time around, after taking down the Big East champion Pittsburgh, the Big Ten’s third-best team in Wisconsin and the SEC regular season champ in Florida, why should the Bulldogs be considered anything but a threat to win the national title? Think of it this way: the only schools in the last decade to reach consecutive Final Fours? Michigan State, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas and Maryland. Oh, and now Butler. Which one doesn’t belong? I’d argue they all do, and that’s the point.
Much has been written about the rapid rise and feel-good story of Butler coach Brad Stevens. But the real story here is the way that Stevens is coolly rewriting the script for coaches of small conference programs. Stevens is on the precipice of doing something far more impressive than just guiding his team to the national title game. Others have managed that same feat to little or no lasting success. In fact, Paul Hewitt (Georgia Tech, 2004) and Mike Davis (Indiana, 2002) aren’t even coaching at the schools they brought to the championship game anymore. Such is the difficulty of sustaining such a high level of success. But both of those guys piloted surprising big conference schools. Those IU and Georgia Tech teams had prep All-Americans and sure-fire pros. Butler has guys who were either lightly regarded or late bloomers and a couple of “maybe” pros. Yet with fewer resources and—because of Butler’s run last season—raised expectations, Stevens is effectively building a Duke-style program in the middle of Indiana.
Why the comparison to Duke? Size. One of the things I like best about NCAA basketball is that, unlike football, all you really need are a few good players and some jerseys and high tops. Obviously, that’s an oversimplification, but not by much. When you only need 13 players, not 75, the chances that a non-power team will develop into a consistent winner are greatly improved. Why can’t you build a powerhouse basketball program in the Horizon League? That’s what Xavier (Atlantic 10) and Gonzaga (West Coast Conference) have done. Each has found the blueprint for success: the right coach(es), creative and diligent recruiting, and, most ambiguously yet importantly, a culture of winning.
You see that phrase “Culture of Winning” often in sports talk. It’s vague and, at this point, a bit trite, but there’s still something to it. It’s the idea that kids arrive on campus with the expectation that they will be winners. It permeates the program—from the ball boys to the athletic offices to the assistant coaches and everything in between. To maintain a certain standard of excellence, programs must re-stock with players who can both handle a culture of winning and build on it. This is true of big or small programs, in major conferences and not. It often relies on consistency of effort and, frankly, on some luck as well. Thanks to a run of great coaches doing big things and continuing to build on a solid foundation, Butler has it. In droves.
The biggest obstacle to creating a mid-major dynasty is overcoming a system that’s rigged toward big conferences. Each conference gets only one automatic bid, and since at-large bids are handed out with heavy weight on who you’ve played, who you’ve beaten and where those games were played, schools like Butler or Gonzaga are, by NCAA design, forced to play anyone and everyone in the pre-conference season just to establish their bona fides for a potential at-large berth in the tournament. That’s fine so long as you win all those games. But playing a murderer’s row of a schedule can backfire if you don’t beat a few of those big names early and if you don’t then win your conference tournament. One or two years of whiffing on the tournament and that cathedral of winning you were building is back to being an outhouse.
The list of once up-and-coming basketball situations that have flat-lined over time is significant: George Washington, Tulsa, Southern Illinois… and the list goes on. Often this is because the coach left for green (literally, as in cash) pastures. But what we’re seeing at Butler isn’t a coach making something from nothing, but rather one super-coach creating a legacy out of a tradition of winning (again, similar to Xavier and Gonzaga). Stevens got the Butler job when his boss, Todd Lickliter, left for Iowa. Now Lickliter is no longer the coach at Iowa, because he got fired for not winning. But Lickliter had taken over from Thad Matta who had only coached one season at Butler before leaving for… Xavier.
Xavier has its own long legacy of winning, which can be dated to the hiring of Pete Gillen back in 1985. Gillen went a ridiculous 202-75 in his ten years in Cincinnati and took the school to its first Sweet 16 in 1990. Gillen beget Skip Prosser (148-65 at Xavier), who kept on winning. Prosser handed off to Matta (78-23, 1 Elite Eight), who handed off to Sean Miller (120-47, 1 Sweet 16, 1 Elite Eight), now at Arizona, who bequeathed to Chris Mack (50-17 in two seasons, 1 Sweet 16). The Musketeers’ lasting success has long been undervalued, as has its pre-eminence as a starting place for future coaching stars. Butler is now on a similar trajectory—only with a higher arc.
The flip side for the super-successful mid-majors is the expectations that come with long-term success. Gonzaga is now expected to post a conference title winner and compete for a spot in the Final Four. Never mind that the Bulldogs have never been to a Final Four—and haven’t reached the Elite Eight since 1999. Based on their profile and their history, the Zags have come to be thought of as the basketball power on the West Coast. Xavier plays in a more prominent conference so their chances for an at-large berth are usually somewhat better. Butler now stands as the standard bearer for small schools playing big-time basketball. That weight can be crushing if the right players are not in place. Stevens has been able to count on junior guard Shelvin Mack—a tough kid from the University of Kentucky’s back porch that the Wildcats ignored—and senior Matt Howard—a local Indiana kid with grit and non-stop energy—for two years. It’s time for Howard to leave, and Mack has played his way into the NBA Draft conversation. How Stevens replaces them will go far in determining the future of the burgeoning Bulldogs dynasty.
And then, of course, there’s the question of keeping Stevens himself around. After Butler’s remarkable run last season, Stevens signed a mammoth contract extension that would (in theory at least) keep him as coach until 2021-22. Nonetheless, his name crops up whenever there’s a prominent coaching vacancy in the power six conferences. Stevens insists he’s happy where he is, but his record to date is 10-3 in the last four years in the NCAA tournament. That’s not just good. That’s all-time good;that’s Rick Pitino good; that’s Roy Williams good. But what is there to gain from jumping to a bigger program? More games on television? Sure. An easier time recruiting blue-chip recruits? Probably. And yet, would he win more or be a bigger name or reach higher heights?
There are many cautionary tales here. Take Dan Monson, who put Gonzaga on the map, then catapulted from Spokane to Minneapolis to revive a Minnesota Gophers program reeling from NCAA penalties. Ended up that Monson had none of the fun and all of the pain that comes along with coaching a hobbled Big Ten also-ran and now he’s back in the little time, at Long Beach State. Ask Monson if he made the right move leaving the friendly confines of Spokane. If he says yes, he’s lying to you.
But the lure of the bright lights of an Indiana or Kentucky or, heck, maybe even Duke might be too much for Stevens to pass up one day. But until then fans of college basketball can enjoy watching a dynasty in the making, one built at a school in a small conference that plays in a gym called Hinkle Fieldhouse.
In the Final Four, Stevens and his upstart Bulldogs will face the other surprise team of the tournament: Virginia Commonwealth. VCU has a strong recent history, albeit nothing on the scale of Butler’s last two seasons. VCU coach Shaka Smart has taken his Colonial Athletic Association member school to new heights after barely making it into the tournament at all. Proving all those pundits and doubters wrong will be a major motivation for the Rams. Were it to win, and were Kentucky to get past UCONN in the other semifinal match-up, VCU will have beaten teams from each of the six major conferences on the way to a national title.
UCONN has made its own remarkable run, winning five games in five days to win the Big East tournament, then four more to get to the Final Four. Huskies star Kemba Walker stands on the verge of cementing his NCAA legacy, à la Danny Manning or Carmelo Anthony. Or standing there at the tip could be the Kentucky Wildcats, whose defense and determination overcame probably any team’s toughest two-game stretch in the draw so far in Ohio State and North Carolina. Kentucky’s ardent fans and oft-maligned head coach may be despised by those outside the Bluegrass, but a closer look finds much to like about John Calipari’s actual team: guts, guile, rock-solid defense and an unbelievable will.
With no top seeds left, this Final Four might look a little like someone shook up the brackets and this crazy mess is what spit out, but that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Because one team’s fans are going to experience the joy of a thoroughly unexpected national championship. And maybe the rest of us will get to see some college kids no one expected to be there grab that big win. The win that can turn a team of afterthoughts into household names, or a scrappy undersized scoring guard into a legend, or a small school in Richmond into the center of the basketball universe. Or maybe, if things work out that way, we’ll see the next, and biggest, steps in the building of a new basketball dynasty, straight out of the Horizon league. Wouldn’t that be something?
Photo by bradjward.