Houston Richmond and Cleveland State were the 1980s pioneers, charming and obscure underdogs who crashed the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
Loyola Marymount, Rhode Island and Gonzaga went a step beyond during the ’90s, reaching the Elite Eight. But bankrolled by television and their Div. I-A football programs, the power-conference alpha pups ruled the Final Four like the Castro family does Cuba.
Until George Mason in 2006. Until Butler in 2010. Until VCU and Butler this year.
Yet one thing is missing: a national championship.
Butler attempts to fill that void tonight when it faces Connecticut in the title game at Reliant Stadium, and here’s hoping coach Brad Stevens and Co., close the deal.
For themselves, a year after their agonizing loss to Duke in the tournament final.
For the so-called mid-majors, the programs with undersized budgets and oversized dreams.
And for college basketball, which could do without a national champion that violated NCAA recruiting standards.
The NCAA in late February restricted UConn’s scholarships and suspended coach Jim Calhoun for three games next season. The Huskies’ sin: Prospect Nate Miles received $6,000 in improper benefits from an agent who was also a UConn booster.
Calhoun insisted he was unaware of the payments, but the NCAA cited him for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Last week, however, Miles told the New York Times that Calhoun was aware.
Handing the championship bling to Calhoun would be the NCAA’s most awkward trophy presentation since UNLV and Jerry Tarkanian squashed Duke in 1990.
But even if you ignore the Dudley Do-Right versus Snidely Whiplash morality play, Butler’s quest merits embracing.
Same would have applied were VCU in the final.
“College basketball’s evolved over the past two, three decades,” Rams coach Shaka Smart said after Saturday’s 70-62 loss to Butler. “And ... with the rise of grass-roots (summer) basketball, these guys have played against all the good players ... from all the major conferences and ... so they’re not afraid.”
No one fit the mold like Butler. The Bulldogs returned six of their top nine players, and that seasoning showed in tournament victories over BCS programs Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida.
“I’m not surprised,” Smart said of Butler’s return to the title game.
Stevens is 34, half Calhoun’s age, and appreciates his Bulldogs’ little-man appeal.
“I’m a fan of teams like Butler in other sports,” he said. “The next thing I’m moving on to is the Masters, and I’m hoping I find somebody who I don’t know anything about who wins at the end so I can root for them. It’s the fun thing about sports, and it’s fun to be the team that everybody is talking about in that light.”
But for decades, convention has held that the Butlers and Masons and VCUs face too many roadblocks, that they can’t win it all.
“Certainly there are a lot of reasons to say you can’t,” Stevens said. “But it’s a lot more fun to say you can, and it’s a lot more fun to believe.”
Late tonight, all of college basketball may have to believe as well.