The Indiana Hoosiers are eight years removed from their most recent championship game appearance, but the state of Indiana has rallied around the Butler Bulldogs as they prepare to take on Duke in tonight's NCAA Championship in Indianapolis. Butler has become an NCAA Tournament mainstay over the last decade and has made two previous trips to the Sweet 16 in that time, but Butler's run to the title game, despite the Bulldogs' regular season ranking, is improbable. No team since UNLV, which made a handful of Final Four appearances while a member of the Big West (before jumping to the WAC and ultimately the Mountain West), has made such a run from a conference comparable to the Horizon. While the Bulldogs aren't a George Mason-style Cinderella, reaching the title game as a five seed is an accomplishment for any program. When IU reached the title game in 2002 as a 5 seed, the Hoosiers heard some "Hoosiers" comparisons despite IU's strong basketball tradition.
Butler's success has led to quite a debate among fans of central Indiana's more historically advantaged programs. A couple of somewhat opposing takes on this issue come from Boiled Sports and Hammer and Rails.
As Boilerdowd of BS puts it:
I really want Butler to beat Duke tonight.
But dammit, I hate it.
I hate the fact that all season I talked to friends of mine about how similar Purdue and Butler are...from the scary similarities between Hummel and Heyward...to the fact that Butler's a defensive-minded squad...to lack of any depth in both frontcourts...BUT, they'll be playing on the big stage tomorrow, but my favorite squad won't.
He also has less than kind words for the bandwagon effect for Butler, a pattern that is universal in the sports world, but in this instance is of course all the fault of IU fans. On the other end of the spectrum, Travis from Hammer and Rails is hopping aboard, despite charges of disloyalty from his commenters:
I have a closet full of Purdue stuff. By my count I have four football jerseys, two basketball jerseys, two hooded sweatshirts, a nice pullover fleece, and numerous T-shirts. Being at the epicenter of the Final Four this weekend means I may have to add something though. I may have to ask my Butler friends if there is still room on the bandwagon for Monday night and buy a shirt from one of the dozens of vendors on the streets of downtown.
I guess I fall somewhere in between. I don't own any Butler apparel and don't plan to buy any, and certainly not a NCAA Champions shirt if they do win it. Still, I am unreservedly rooting for Butler tonight, and was when they played Michigan State. My thought is that I'm not doing anything different that I have ever done. I've always rooted for Indiana "mid-majors" in the Tournament, from Ball State in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Valparaiso and Indiana State in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and Butler from about 2000 on. The difference that has emerged in the last couple of years is that Butler is now as a mid-major in conference affiliation only. not only are the Bulldogs winning games against major conference opponents, they are winning recruiting battles. Butler outmaneuvered IU and Purdue for the services of Matt Howard and beat out Purdue for Gordon Hayward.
Within both the IU and Purdue fan bases, a debate is raging about whether, given the Bulldogs' current recruiting and on-court success, it is appropriate to root for Butler tonight. I say yes. Purdue fans can do whatever they want, and I imagine it's tougher for them, given their expectations for 2009-10 and the 41-year title game drought and 30-year Final Four drought. For all of IU's current struggles, we are only eight years removed from our last appearance on the last Monday of the season. It may seem like decades ago, but only 12 programs, including Butler, can say they have been there more recently than IU. More than that, however, is that IU shouldn't have to fear any competition. When IU was among the leading programs in college basketball in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, it wasn't because of a lack of regional competition. Back then, Purdue, Kentucky, Louisville, Xavier, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Illinois, and Ohio State all had excellent programs for some or all of that time. Still, IU won at a high level. Butler certainly is now a more formidable threat than before, but do they fundamentally change the recruiting landscape any more than when Duke or North Carolina try to cherry-pick Indiana players? I don't think so. IU fans and coaches should respect Butler and give the Bulldogs their due, but if we fear or resent them, then the battle is already lost. IU has great tradition, great facilities, a coach who has excelled at prior stops, and a packed arena even in the lean years. If we don't bounce back, it won't be because of Butler.
As for the game, I really don't know what to expect. I thought Syracuse was going to whip Butler. I thought they had a good chance against Kansas State because of the double overtime game between Xavier and K-State. Then, I thought Michigan State would push the Bulldogs around. I'm even less optimistic about Butler's chances against Duke, but my lack of optimism has been good for Butler so far. I'm beyond the ability to be surprised by this team. go Bulldogs.