I admit it: I’m a college sports curmudgeon. I hate the way we’ve turned our colleges and universities into farm systems for the NBA and the NFL. The money involved is obscene; in its annual ranking of most valuable college basketball programs, Forbes says the Tarheels of North Carolina–who didn’t even make the NCAA tournament this year–are worth nearly $26 million all by themselves. Forbes also says that office pools and other wagers on the tournament amount to $2.5 billion each year.
How much of this money goes to the “student athletes” themselves? Approximately none of it. The big-money system uses these kids as fuel for its cash machine. A tiny percentage of players become wealthy professional athletes. The rest ostensibly get an education. Of course, lots of kids playing for big time programs don’t graduate. So what they’re really getting is valuable experience as cogs in the American Sports/Entertainment Complex.
Don’t get me started.
Especially now–since my alma mater, Butler University, has done the almost unthinkable. The Bulldogs beat Texas-El Paso and Murray State to reach the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, then beat Syracuse and Kansas State, the one and two seeds, to reach the Final Four.
Which makes me unreasonably happy.
Here in Indiana, we love our plucky basketball underdogs. As Butler has made its improbable run, the talking sports bobbleheads have been quick to remind fans that Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s home venue, was the setting for the dramatic finale of Hoosiers. But Hoosiers was based on the real-life story of the 1954 Milan Indians, who faced big, bad Muncie Central on that same floor in the finals of the Indiana high school basketball tournament. The real Jimmy Chitwood was Bobby Plump, who made a dramatic last-second shot to win the game and the title for Milan.
(Also: when it was opened in 1927, Hinkle–then Butler Fieldhouse–was the largest indoor arena in the world. It’s still among the oldest college basketball arenas still in use. Plump went on to star at Butler University and after graduation had a nice, brief career in the National Industrial Basketball League.)
Butler’s not as big an underdog as you might think. As the number five seed in the West Region, the Bulldogs were thought to be among the 20 best teams in the country. They were probably better than that. The AP poll ranked them at number 11 at the end of the regular season; the ESPN/USA Today poll ranked them number eight. In that light, a five seed was almost an insult.
And now that only four teams remain, don’t think Butler’s not good enough to win it all. They deserved to win both of their regional games. They dominated Syracuse and Kansas State–both bigger, stronger, major-conference teams. One or the other was nearly every professional pundit’s pick to reach the Final Four.
Butler plays a controlled, careful, fundamentally solid style of basketball. They play smothering man-to-man defense–even against teams such as Syracuse, when the conventional wisdom says you have to play a zone. The last team to score 70 against Butler was Georgetown on December 8. They pass and cut and protect the ball beautifully (although they had 20 turnovers against Kansas State).
And they’ve won 24 games in a row–the longest active winning streak in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball. You don’t win 24 games in a row without figuring out how to win just about any way you can.
But here’s the beauty part: Butler’s a little private school with 4,500 students. Their players (with the possible exception of sophomore phenom Gordon Hayward) are not going pro, and they know it. The last Butler Bulldog to play in the NBA was Ralph “Buckshot” O’Brien, with the 1952 Baltimore Bullets.
So you know what Butler players do? They graduate. According to a 2008 University of Central Florida study that followed graduation rates for six years, Butler graduates 92 percent of its players. The other Final Four teams fall out thusly: West Virginia, 33 percent; Michigan State, 67 percent; and Duke, 67 percent.
Butler reminds us what’s great about college basketball. When it comes right down to it, it’s still a five-on-five game. Five kids with a will to win, playing in a system that rewards unselfishness, still have a shot at beating the big guys. A team made up of kids who weren’t on any big college scouts’ radar can hang with the big-money, big-noise programs that must, at least, share the blame for so much of what’s wrong with college sports today.
It doesn’t make the system that uses talented young athletes and throws them away any easier to stomach. But it at least points up the idea that you don’t have to have all that money to build a great college basketball program.