Positioning yourself as an expert for this year’s NCAA Tournament can pretty much make you look silly. So, I’ll write this as a curious onlooker who had the good fortune to spend some time around the Butler program this season.
In the one-and-done universe that is college basketball today, there’s something compelling about the throwback Butler Bulldogs that makes me want to see this team knock off UConn tonight for the national title. Cinderella story aside (though, can you be Cinderella twice?), I can’t help but root for Butler.
From its hallowed Hinkle Fieldhouse where the real life Hoosiers story played out (and the movie was filmed) to its going-for-broke young leader who gave up a promising corporate career to coach basketball to its minnow-like recruiting presence in a shark tank, Butler is an easy sentimental favorite. But can a sentimental favorite make the leap to crowned champion?
The handwriting is on the wall: absolutely.
Back in December on a frozen Indiana Saturday, I watched Butler paste Stanford in front of a packed house in a game that was nationally broadcast on CBS (a first for the program at home). My assignment was to simply find out why this team that was a Hail Mary shot rimming out at the buzzer of winning the national title was struggling nine months later.
“Struggling?” asked a humble yet incredulous Brad Stevens at the time. “This is exactly where we were last season. It has taken us a while to get our feet under us, but we’re starting to come together as a team.”
It sounded plausible at the time. Butler had lost an irreplaceable Gordon Hayward and faced a rigorous out-of-conference schedule ahead of Horizon league play. Then the Horizon League opened and it all seemed like a bunch of coach speak.
Butler struggled early and middle. But by late season, Butler found its form, climbing its way to the top of an unusually competitive Horizon League heap and into the tournament. And it has been climbing ever since.
But Butler will win tonight because it’s a team that has been forged in the fire. Sure, UConn could make the same case—and it’s just as true. But this Butler has been forged in the fire – the NCAA title game – and lost just 365 days ago.
Regardless of what’s happening, here’s a salute to a team that’s doing it the right way and understands that the route to becoming a champion is as important as the very moment it happens.