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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Nation learns that Butler is for real

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No one told basketball purists you’re not supposed to mess with a good Hollywood script.

As almost everybody characterizes Butler’s run to the national championship as a “Cinderella story” and Monday night’s title match-up against Duke as “David vs. Goliath,” basketball insiders say get the story straight.

Yes, Butler is a first-time Final Four team that is the first school from the Horizon League to get this far. Yes, Butler is a small school (enrollment 4,200) with a home court that has a rich basketball history. Yes, parts of the movie “Hoosiers” were filmed in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the gym where Butler plays its home games.

But throw out the script and read the scouting report.

The Bulldogs may have lost the championship game to Duke 61-59 but these guys are good, very good. The front of the jerseys read Butler, who just happens to be the No. 11 team in the Top 25. This is not George Mason.

“In order to achieve what Butler has, it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight, not in just a year,” said Jim Larranaga, the coach of the No. 11 seed George Mason team that shocked college basketball by reaching the Final Four in 2006. “It’s a level of success that comes over a lengthy period of time.’’

This was the fourth straight year the Bulldogs went to the NCAA tournament, and the second time in that stretch they were a No. 5 seed. That means the committee had them in the top 20 teams in the field.

Butler has been in the NCAA tournament 10 times, and it reached the round of 16 in 2003 and 2007. Including this year, the Bulldogs have won 10 NCAA tournament games since 2001. “They don’t have the same players and coach every year, but there is a system in place there,” Larranaga said on the eve of the championship game. “I’m not saying what we did was a fluke, but what we did is only similar in that it was two programs operating at a very high level of competition compared to the high majors on a lot less of a budget.”

Duke was ranked as high as third this season and never fell below 10th. Butler was ranked as 11th and had won 25 in a row. The Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule was deemed the toughest in the country by the computer ratings.

“To win a national championship you have to get lucky, get a break or two. That program has been on par with a lot of the high majors for an extended period of time,” said Larranaga.

Maybe we should blame the term mid-major. It means a team from a non-Bowl Championship Series conference. So if you don’t play in the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-10 you’re a mid-major. But there are exceptions. Butler is one just like Memphis in 2008 or Marquette in 2003 or Utah in 1998 or Massachusetts in 1996. Some schools just don’t deserve the mid-major tag and Butler is one of them.

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