The Butler divide

How people perceive sports is something that’s always fascinated me. The NCAA Tournament is not simply a great sporting event because of the thrills it provides; it’s also a look in the mirror for many sports fans.

No university’s men’s hoops team elicits such a wide range of reactions more than the Butler Bulldogs. Their run last year was seen as a cute story. Their run this year combined with VCU’s and the lack of one or two seeds in the Final Four, has many fans very concerned about the state of the game.

Some of us like the so-called “blue bloods,” the traditional elites. Some of us root for the underdog every time. Judging the national pulse on something is difficult but has been made easier thanks to Twitter. As I watched Butler-VCU last night unfold, I saw many comments about how this was “bad basketball” and not what America wants to see in the Final Four. Fans are worried the game has so much parity that the quality has eroded. Michael Wilbon wrote about this before the tournament even began and he was dead right about the parity.

The quality or lack there of, now there lies the rub. We’re in a new era in college sports. Ever since the NBA  declared that every high school athlete needs to wait one year (translation: go to college unless you’re Brandon Jennings and want to take your talents to Europe) before going pro, traditional powerhouses in college basketball have relied primarily on star freshmen such as John Wall, O.J. Mayo, and BJ Mullens. (I’m kidding about Mullens, he sucked.)

The only problem: a star freshman has not led a team to a title since Carmelo Anthony, and he did that before the new rule was instituted. 18 and 19 year olds, no matter how talented, are still learning the game of basketball. The jump from 18 to 22 is significant, and now we’re seeing the teams who recruit the players who actually stick around thrive the most.

This has led to cracks in the armor of the traditional powers. Upsets have always been a part of March Madness, but the runs we’ve seen recently from teams outside the power six conferences are truly remarkable. George Mason made it to the Final Four in 2006, becoming the first 11 seed to do so since LSU, and that was just the beginning. Since then we’ve seen an elite eight run by Davidson, San Diego State earning a two seed, BYU earning a three seed, VCU dismantling teams from five of the six power conferences, and the absurdity of Butler reaching two straight national title games.

This is shaking the foundation of college basketball. Fans are lamenting that the game isn’t like it used to be, and they’re right, it’s not. But that’s not a bad thing.

I happen to fall into the underdog fan category. How can I not…having grown up in Seattle and attended Northwestern University? Frankly, I root against the powerhouse teams at every turn. I want as much chaos as possible in my tournaments, playoffs, and BCS.

Although, I’m not so sure Butler should be considered an underdog anymore. They had a NBA lottery pick last year in Gordon Hayward, and there’s a lot of buzz this year about the pro potential of Shelvin Mack.  Nonetheless, the underdog theme continues in prominent places because some people are hopeless romantics.

Other people are obsessed with advanced metrics and refuse to give Butler any credit, saying that Florida is a better team than Butler….after Butler beat the Gators.

You get the idea…however you may view Butler, it’s an insight in to how you view sports. If they’re bad for college basketball, it means you like traditional, elite programs. If they’re an example about why college football needs a play-off, you really hate the BCS and can’t stop thinking about it even in March. If Brad Stevens is a genius, you think coaching matters more than the players. If Matt Howard annoys you, you probably also hate the Wisconsin Badgers and a certain style of basketball.

My view? I love Butler and think they are a legitimately great team. Comparing eras is impossible so I can’t say whether they could have hung with the old UNLV teams or the old Duke teams or the Fab Five. Frankly, I don’t care. Maybe I don’t pine for the olden days because I’m 23 years old.

All I know is that for this era in college basketball…they’re one of the best programs in the nation. You don’t need a bunch of NBA draft picks to win in college basketball. That’s fine. It’s a completely different sport than the NBA. Watch a college game and then watch a NBA game. The differences are much more immense than simply talent.

My advice to people struggling with the idea of the “little guys” taking over: appreciate college basketball for what it is, not for what it was or what you wish it would be. It’s kids playing because they love the game, not for money or endorsement deals (in most cases…I think). It’s entertainment of the highest order that is still pretty darn good basketball. It’s true parity.

It’s embodied by Butler.