Cinderellas Abound in College Basketball

Barry Rothbard

George Mason’s miraculous run to the Final Four in last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament further opened up Pandora’s box. Unlike college football, which is dominated by the BCS conferences, college basketball has transformed into a world of parity. Upsets have been occurring throughout the history of college basketball – they are responsible for much of the intrigue in arguably the most popular sporting event, the NCAA tournament. But the “cinderellas” of March are more than just that, as college basketball has become a year round whirlwind of upsets. And no one is safe.

Just ask Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. The perennial powers (the latter two earned #2 and #3 seeds in last year’s NCAA tourney) all fell victim to Butler, who cruised to become the pre-season NIT tournament champion last week. Butler, the Indianapolis based school, was picked in pre-season national polls to finish sixth in their conference, the Horizon League. Now? They are currently ranked as the number one team in the RPI.

Butler’s tallest player stands at a mere 6’7″. While someone that tall may stand out on the Colgate campus, he is just a typical basketball player in the Big East or ACC. Their stud in the tournament, A.J. Graves, is 6’1″ and the closest he will ever come to an NBA court was last week at MSG. The bottom line is that Butler, like many of the “mid-majors” (teams from non-BCS conferences) won with grit, stellar 3-point shooting, and a George Mason-like confidence. In the world of college basketball, a team’s short-comings can be overcome by heart, a few good bounces and swagger. And that’s just how Butler took home this title.

There is no guarantee Butler stays on this roll. They probably will, like any team, have a few sub par nights and lose to some bad teams. They might not win their conference championship and might not make the tournament. But what they accomplished in New York set the table for them to possibly have a special season and provides further proof that the little guys can play too. Their schedule is favorable enough (zero ranked teams left), that they could conceivably run the table. Even if they do so, come March, no one will be penciling them in for the Final Four, and probably deservedly so.

No, come March, Butler won’t be on most of our minds. But someone else, someone we’ve never heard of, will be. It could be Oral Roberts, which shocked Georgetown, #7 team in the country at that time, already this season. It could be Old Dominion, which stunned a sexy final four pick, Kansas. Who knows, it could be Colgate.

Yes, upsets occur in every sport, we all know this. But they just seem to be more meaningful when you see 10 undersized, less athletic guys, jumping around and celebrating while 10 future NBA players stand around and mope. And the upsets in college basketball stick with us; no one will ever forget about George Mason’s run, or Bucknell’s tournament victories the past two years.

Nor will anyone in Indianapolis ever forget Butler’s great start to this season, which has reinforced how unpredictable college basketball is-which is why people watch it. On paper, no one thinks that 10 future auto mechanics or school teachers or business executives can take it to the star studded rosters like that of UConn, Kansas and UCLA, three of the major powers. But, in reality, none of it matters in college basketball. A.J. Graves didn’t care that Chris Lofton of Tennessee is supposed to be one of the best three point shooters in the nation. Come March, other players won’t care that they’re playing their last basketball ever, and more powers will be stunned. I won’t be.