On the day before any NCAA tournament begins — and with apologies to those forced to do the Dayton Drill, it really and truly begins Thursday — there are always the same cliche questions asked of the so-called experts:
— What is the best bet for a first-round upset?
— Who will be the first No. 1 seed to lose?
— Who will make it to Houston (in 2011)?
— How many times will TV viewers be forced to watch those god-awful, sanctimonious NCAA ‘student-athlete’ spots?
Okay, the last one is made up. The last and most oft-asked question from 2007 to 2010 was actually this: “Who will be this year’s George Mason?”
This year, the question has changed: “Who will be this year’s Butler?”
There isn’t a soul who cares about college basketball who doesn’t remember the Bulldogs’ remarkable run last spring, one that took them to within two inches — the margin by which Gordon Hayward’s last-second shot against Duke missed — of becoming national champions.
Old Dominion, a team that won 27 games and the tournament title in perhaps the deepest mid-major conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, plays this year’s Butler — the real-life 2011 Bulldogs — in Thursday’s opening game at Verizon Center. Some people think ODU could be this year’s Butler, if it can get past Butler.
“I haven’t brought that up to the players, ODU Coach Blaine Taylor said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it and know what an amazing story it was. We’d all like to get on that kind of ride, and what Butler did last year proves that it’s possible.”
Butler’s ride to the national championship game actually topped George Mason’s miracle run of 2006. The Bulldogs knocked off Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State before losing, 61-59, to Duke in one of the tournament’s most remarkable championship games.
“I definitely wanted to see them take down Duke,” Monarchs forward Keyon Carter said Wednesday. “They just showed the whole country that the bar between the mid-majors and elite teams is shrinking.”
It has shrunk to close to nothing in recent years. Butler 2010 was the latest poster boy to prove that. A year later, after winning their last nine games to overcome a rocky (14-9) beginning, Butler comes into the tournament believing it can be this year’s Butler even if Thursday’s winner probably will have to play Pittsburgh, the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region, on Saturday.
“Last year gave us experience at all of this,” said Butler shooting guard Zach Hahn. “We’ve played in these big NBA-type facilities quite a bit, we’re used to all this, it’s all kind of second-hand now. I think that might help us a little bit. It still comes down to how we play.”
But Old Dominion isn’t new to this either: The Monarchs upset Notre Dame in the first round last year before losing to Baylor. Four seniors play extensive minutes and they have won 54 games the past two seasons.
“In a way, I was a little surprised by our seed and that we were matched with Butler,” Taylor said. “But I guess I can see the romance in the matchup. We had some success last year and we think we’re pretty good. And everyone knows all about what they did last year.”
In fact, what Butler did last year is something of a phenomenon even now, even with Hayward, that team’s star, now playing for the Utah Jazz instead of attending Butler as a junior.
If Hayward was still at Butler, the Bulldogs might be a No. 1 seed instead of a No. 8. Of course that might make it tough for them to continue in the role of underdog that they readily admit they enjoy.
“I think it helps us to play with a chip on our shoulder,” said senior guard Shawn Vanzant. “We did it last year. We hope to do it this year.”
It is a little bit tougher to be the underdog when you’ve been America’s Darlings. George Mason found that out after 2006, when a big target was placed on its collective back in almost every game it played. Butler experienced that this year and struggled with it at times.
“There was definitely more excitement when we came to town, especially in our league, this season,” Coach Brad Stevens said. “I was proud of the way our guys stayed together. How many times do you hear stories about teams coming apart after a major success when things don’t go right the next season? Our group never did that.”
It is always difficult to measure how a story like Butler’s affects those who lived it. Several years ago, a former Princeton president named William G. Bowen co-authored a remarkably short-sighted book in which he claimed that a successful athletic team has no effect on a university, financially or in terms of admissions or image. Anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes around college athletics without burying his head in a pile of academic arrogance knows that isn’t close to true.
Stevens has one statistic that kind of blows Bowen’s theory into the 19th century. “In the two years prior to last year, our Web site had a total of about 3.5 million hits each year,” he said in the hallway outside his locker room just before practice Wednesday. “Last year the Web site had 111 million hits.” He smiled. “I think we generated a little bit of extra interest with what our team did.”
Now, Butler is the UCLA of mid-majors, the team everyone wants to grow up to be like.
“I can’t lie,” said Darius James, one of ODU’s seniors. “We [mid-majors] stick together. I wanted them to win it all last year. But [Thursday] when we go out there to play them, it’s a whole different thing.”
A year ago, the Bulldogs were a number five seed going into the tournament and actually struggled to beat Murray State in the second round. “We played a lot better once we started wearing the dark (lower-seeded) uniforms,” Stevens said. “It was as if the pressure of having that high a seed was off once we got to the second week.”
Butler — the number eight seed to ODU’s nine — will be wearing the dark uniforms on Thursday. But on the back of those uniforms will be a universally acknowledged, if invisible, target.
ODU was the leading rebounding team in the country during the regular season. It has accomplished a lot in recent years.
But if it wants to be this year’s Butler it will have to beat Butler.