For those of you who have not yet made up your mind about whom to root for on Saturday (and Monday), I’ll make your decision for you. In fact, the answer is so obvious, I’d be surprised if my inaugural post even applies to anyone out there. Unless you attend(ed), bet on, or are otherwise closely affiliated with Kentucky, UConn, or VCU, you are out of your mind to pull for any of the three. Butler is the only program that deserves the random observer’s support.
Before I get into the reasons FOR rooting Butler on, I’ll begin (as is my style) by discrediting any alternative arguments:
1. Q: VCU is the Cinderella of the 2011 Big Dance. Cinderella stories are the reason many of us watch the tournament to begin with. Why not root them all the way across the finish line?
A: Be my guest, if the Cinderella champion is what you’re looking for. But don’t think for one second that because Butler shined in the 2010 Tournament, they don’t qualify for Cinderella status this year. We’re forgetting, because the 11 next to VCU’s name is a bigger number than the 8 next to Butler’s, that nobody gave Butler a shot before the tournament either. Sure, they were fantastic last year, but this is not the same Butler team as last year. Same system, perhaps. But nobody in their right mind would have chosen Butler to come this far the year after losing the best player in its program’s history.
2. Q: If VCU or Butler wins, it might be cool for a few weeks, but in the end we all want this Final Four to count for something in the history books. So, shouldn’t I root for Kentucky or UConn?
A: The point is valid when applied to VCU. Shaka Smart is going to catch the next train out of Virginia when this run ends. In other words, you won’t see the Rams making a return trip to the Final Four any time soon. But if the last two years have taught us anything about treating Brad Stevens and Butler as underdogs, beware jumping to the same conclusion about the future of the Butler basketball program. No, they’re not the next Duke, or UNC, or even their latest victim, Florida. But with Stevens locked into a 10-year deal and showing little eagerness to leave, this program has the potential to bring in a great crop of guys to fit his brilliant team-oriented system.
Answer #2: If you’re worried about the history books, you definitely can’t root for Kentucky or UConn. I have no inside information, but I can say with the utmost confidence that in the next ten years, it will be determined that a number of players on both powerhouse squads should have been ruled ineligible for this weekend’s contests. Think about it: you’re a top tier talent trying to decide where to go to college. You can go anywhere in the country. If you’re not looking for improper benefits, doesn’t it seem unnatural to choose a coach who has brought ill-repute to the character of the best of his former players, while running the programs for which they played into the ground, and getting a salary bump at each stop along the road? Are we (and his recruits) supposed to believe that Coach Cal learned from his mistakes and is now on the righteous path? Did Calhoun really take his recent sanctions to heart, or does his insatiable desire to win continue to translate into a total disregard for NCAA “rules”.
3. Screw the NCAA. This should be one we can all agree on. You can’t root for VCU, because if they win, the NCAA will have undeniable leverage to increase the field even further, thus even further diluting the importance of the regular season in an effort to print more dollars. You can’t root for Kentucky or UConn because that’s equivalent to approving the underwhelming sanctions the NCAA has imposed on two coaches who don’t feel the need to play on a level court.
I don’t know Brad Stevens and I won’t make the unsubstantiated claim that Butler’s program is squeaky-clean. I might not be the best judge of class out there (this is a guy who used to worship Coach K and vilify Dean Smith as a child. I was such an idiot!) So I’ll try not to incorporate the fact that they just seem like such a nice group of gentlemen into my argument (too late). The real reason to root for Butler isn’t the purity of the program (I still feel like it’s so pure), but the purity of its product. The Bulldogs play the most fundamentally sound brand of basketball I’ve seen…on both sides of the court. They play the kind of basketball that makes us watch college ranks instead of the NBA. Brad Stevens has come to grips that he is head of a college basketball program, not an NBA prep school, and his players buy into that concept fully. You can rest assured that the focus of each member of the Butler program will be on the task at hand: a national championship, here and now. If they reach the final, the same might not be said of their opponent, especially if they draw Kentucky. Sure, they’ll look and act like a team, but I have to think that thoughts of dollar signs and NBA lottery status enters into the heads of their stars this week. For that reason, if you find yourself rooting for Butler down the stretch of a close game on Monday night, don’t be surprised if your side comes out on top.