Still Climbing the Mountain

by John Furgele

Utah had a chance in 1998, Memphis did in 2008, and in 2010 Butler carried the mantle for the small conference, the mid-major, the non-BCS conference.  Three chances, three misses. 

Duke beat Butler in a stirring, gripping NCAA title game for the ages.  Love them or hate them, Duke has tough gritty basketball players.  Sure, Coach K gets the cream of the crop, a full access to McDonald’s All-Americans, but the man can coach and certainly commands respect of all baskeball players, uist ask Kobe or LeBron. 

But, like Utah and in some regards Memphis, the non-BCS conference hasn’t broken through to win a title in college basketball.  You may consider UNLV’s 1990 title coming from the Big West as the breakthrough, but we all know that Vegas was playing a different hand of cards than a Butler. 

Utah led Kentucky in the second half, which would have given the Mountain West—close to BCS, but not quite— that breakthrough win and we all know how close Memphis was two years ago, even though had they won, the words vacated would be listed under champion. 

Butler was the true mid-major, the true small conference and their agonizing loss should certainly give the small conference schools some hope, but coming close and winning are two very different things.  And, it makes you wonder if this is as close as the little guy will come. 

I have to think that someday we will see a Butler, a Gonzaga, a Northern Iowa or a BYU or New Mexico cut down the nets as an NCAA champion, but sometimes it is the old so close, yet so far scenario.  It’s like the job candidate, who onterviews well, impresses all, but always finishes second.  An excellent candidate, but in the end, still jobless. 

There are other examples.  Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, carried a 33-0 record into the 1979 title tilt against Big Ten power Michigan State, but that was before the creation of the superconferences. Back then, there was no Big East, rather, the ECAC and corsortiums of independents.  In many ways, Butler reminded me of that Indiana State team.  Same state, same type of players, and the gaudy record against decent, but not great teams.  Both etema beat quality opponents in the semifinals.  ISU rallied to beat a very talented DePaul team coached by the legendary Ray Meyer and Butler got past the great Tom Izzo and Michigan State. 

In the end, they both ended up as the runner-up, something that should be feted, not downcasted.  But, in the end, it was agonizing and makes you wondering and hoping for the little guy to break through. 

Once again, this is not an anti-Duke piece.  Had Butler played Kansas, the same thoughts would have been there.  You root fot the undergod, you root for the little guy, hoping that they can do it, but expecting it not to happen.  That’s why the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team will always be the gold standard, because they were the true underdog. 

The NCAA has had remarkable upsets by unheralded teams.  The 1983 NC State team would not have made the NCAA Tournament had they not won the ACC Tournament, and Villanova’s 66-64 win over Georgetown in 1985, the first year of the 64 team tournament is considered by many the greatest upset in championship history.  But, both NC State and Villanova played in major conferences and in Viilanova’s case was quite familiar with their opponent. 

One of these days…..the complete story will be written, perhaps by a Butler, a Xavier or a team from the Missouri Valley, but until then……the big boys rule the day.

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