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On rooting for Butler...again?

A reader was kind enough to remind me about a post that I wrote last year entitled, as this post's title suggests, "On Rooting for Butler."  Last year, IU and Purdue websites were in turmoil about whether to cheer for Butler and whether doing so was disloyal, against the program's interests, and so on.

You can read the whole thing, but the crux of the post was that my answer was yes, it's fine to root for Butler.  My rationale:

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.

I still agree with most of that.  And particularly given the unsavory competition, I won't have any difficulty cheering for the Bulldogs tonight, although Jim Calhoun and Connecticut don't exercise me to the degree that John Calipari and Kentucky would have. 

Consider the company in which Butler now finds itself.  In a quick run through the list of Final Four participants, I gleaned the following list of teams that have played in consecutive title games, some more than once: Oklahoma State, Kentucky, Kansas, LaSalle, San Francisco, California, Ohio State, Cincinnati, UCLA, North Carolina, Houston, Georgetown, Duke, Michigan, Arkansas, Florida, and Butler.  If my count is correct, that makes Butler only the 17th school to play for the championship in consecutive seasons.  IU has never done it.  Louisville has never done it.  Michigan State has never done it.  Think about this: only four Big Ten schools (IU, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) have played in two or more championship games at any time in the entire 73-year history of the NCAA Tournament.  And Butler has now done it not just twice, but twice in a row.  

Of course, that list tells us a few things.  First, that what Butler has done is simply amazing.  Second, it tells us that even success at the highest level of basketball can be fleeting: LaSalle, San Francisco, Cal, and Houston haven't been relevant on the national scene in decades (who would have believed, in 1984, that in 2011 Houston's basketball program would be no more prestigious than that of TCU or Rice?).  The schools on that list, and the schools not on that list, that have had success across multiple generations generally have had large enrollments and/or membership in strong conferences.  I still don't have a strong sense of where Butler will end up in the long term.  During and after last season's run, I was firmly convinced that this was a once-in-a-lifetime run.  Butler's success wouldn't be as fleeting as that of Indiana State in 1979, but, I reasoned, if Gonzaga, despite over a decade as a major-mid-major, could never surpass its elite 8 run of 1999, could Butler ever make it back? I didn't think so.  The 2010-11 season, until the win over Pitt, played out about as expected.  Butler, having lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA, did not gain a signature non-conference win and struggled even against the dregs of the Horizon.  While Butler's 8-seed suggests that the Bulldogs would have earned an at large bid even had they lost the Horizon title game, it's entirely possible that they would have been playing VCU in Dayton instead of in Houston. 

The question is whether this surprising run by the Bulldogs changes what I think about rooting for them.  The answer is, not really.  I still tend to root for Indiana's "other," i.e., non-power conference programs in the NCAA Tournament.  I still view Butler in that light, but obviously I am reconsidering whether Butler is turning into a true power program.  Certainly, the results in the last two NCAA Tournaments suggest that they are.  Still, when the dust settles, I think that Butler will have to evaluate what it wants out of its basketball program and athletic department in general.  Horizon League membership will make Butler a tough sell to recruits.  Convincing players that are considering Big Ten and ACC schools that winter trips to half-full (maybe) arenas in Youngstown, Green Bay, and Detroit still has to be something of a hindrance.  It can be done, but it is difficult.  It will be interesting to see if Butler has any interest in trying to move up, perhaps to the Atlantic Ten or a comparable conference.   Perhaps Butler will pursue such a move.  Perhaps Butler, as a small school that even in the wake of a title game appearance didn't come close to averaging a sellout at Hinkle Fieldhouse, will decide that the Horizon is a good long-term fit.  That may be the right answer, but it also means that Butler's success will be precarious.  If Brad Stevens eventually leaves, and his replacement is not successful, then the Bulldogs will not have a TV contract or revenue stream to rely upon.  The most sobering statistic I have heard this week is one tweeted by Darren Rovell : Butler managed to sell only 1900 of its 3250 allotted Final Four tickets, less than 60 percent.   If Butler can't sell Final Four tickets, what does that say about Butler's ability to sustain through the relative lean years that inevitably affect every program?

Of course, there is no sign that Brad Stevens is going anywhere.  Stevens did not follow the money to Oregon, and he would be wise to avoid a move for the sake of moving.  His current success would make him a legitimate candidate for any job in the country--Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, name it.  Perhaps he will be content, particularly if he wins tonight, to be the Tony Hinkle of this generation.  Or, perhaps he will decide, eventually, to take on another challenge.

In any event, my answer remains yes, I will be rooting for Butler tonight.  Even if a win means that Butler becomes the state's fourth major program.  As I said last year, IU at its full potential is not threatened by any program.   Tough regional competition, in recruiting and on the court, is nothing new.  Still, I would be blind not to acknowledge that Butler's success may have moved from feel-good story to potential realignment.