While mid-majors are making the Final Four more in the past, it still has not been that common. George Mason in 2006 (written about by Raymond Curren
) was the first true mid-major in the modern era of college basketball to make the Final Four. Butler also made it of course in 2010 and 2011, VCU did in 2011 as well, and now Wichita State. All of those schools are either in the Midwest or Virginia; places I like and have been to before but not often. I have never seen any of those four schools at home before. And of course I am a Big South fan, where the best Gregg Marshall was able to do with any of our schools was to make the Round of 32. And that
was only once
. My school High Point has never come closer than the conference final, which it has not made since 2004. The mid-majors I feel deeply connected to just never go far. The only exception to that are the teams of Southern Illinois in the mid-2000s that I saw during Christmas break when my dad returned to his alma mater. And I have also seen 2008 Elon and 2013 Florida Gulf Coast
make Sweet 16 runs after having seen them narrowly escape in gyms much tinier (Elon and USC Upstate respectively) than the domes they would eventually reach. But they did not reach the Final Four, although Davidson was certainly close. But following this website made me feel somewhat connected to everybody, particularly Butler in 2010.
I was really happy when George Mason beat UConn in 2006. They were a true underdog as an 11 seed, coming out of the Colonial after Billy Packer
infamously disrespected mid-majors that year upon getting several at-large bids. That was satisfying, yet disappointing in the end as like 2013 FGCU ultimately lost to Florida. But I was not a daily reader of this site at the time, back during #TMM2. Four years later when Butler came around, I was now a frequent visitor here. I had known about Butler before, which made a Sweet 16 run back in 2007. The following December, I saw the Bulldogs play at Southern Illinois which was also coming off a Sweet 16 appearance. Butler had just acquired two key pieces for their big run in 2010: then-freshman center Matt Howard, as well as coach Brad Stevens. After SIU failed to put a the game away in the final minutes, A.J. Graves made a 35 foot shot at the buzzer to win it for Butler. So when Butler made their run two years later, I felt like they were a team I had already known. Of course, the biggest piece of that Butler team was still a senior in high school when I saw Butler play: Gordon "Too Big Yo" Hayward. But I learned about Hayward here, and all of the Bulldogs. Prior to the start of the Bulldogs' run in November 2009, there was a lot of hype about Butler. They were nationally ranked to start the season, and deemed relevant by sportz talk. Mid-majors usually are not promoted in sportz, but Butler was different. And when Kyle wrote this piece on moving the Hoops Nation "capital" from Dayton to Indianapolis
, my thought was, "Kyle, you seem to be putting all of your marbles this year into Butler making a run". But unlike SIU the year before (whom Kyle followed in hopes for a good book on a Saluki rise that never came
), Kyle and all of us would not be let down.
But during the season, I did not always root for Butler. After all, a difference between TMM readers and everybody else is that we make season-long investments
. I had no reason to make an investment in Butler, I was more interested in what High Point and even my grad school above the Red Line in South Carolina was doing. And after having followed more mid-major basketball locally since I entered college, I root more for mid-majors that do not have a history of success. I like mid-majors who 20 years ago were not in Division I, mid-majors that struggle to get 2,000 fans to most games. While we are all fighting the big evil powers, there are certainly schools on our side of the Red Line that have more than the rest of us. Butler is one of them. And when 5 seed Butler faced 13 seed Murray State who had upset Vanderbilt, I was more for the Racers. I had an aunt who graduated from Murray State, and I actually had visited Murray State back in December 2005. And while the Racers have a rich tradition, they have never made the Sweet 16 like Butler had before. I always root for the less privileged school, even when they are both mid-majors. And like in most games, the more privileged school won and Butler advanced.
But once Butler advanced, they would be going against the true enemy. That enemy in the Sweet 16 would be the Syracuse Orange of the Big East. And while Butler had more going for them than Murray State, they had nothing on Syracuse. While we are often times out of place when our schools go to a dome, Syracuse is much different. The Orange play in a dome all the time and average well over 20,000 fans a game. Syracuse is also one of the top spenders in college basketball as well. But the Bulldogs managed a four point victory, and had proven themselves. After the other successful mid-majors had fallen (Xavier, Cornell, Northern Iowa, and St. Mary's), it was up to Butler. They were our team, with a loyal TMM following and its own rallying song we used during the tournament. We had known about them before everybody else did. We needed Gordon Hayward to be Too Big Yo for all of us. We were very close to locking in a Final Four team if Xavier had not fallen in double overtime to Kansas State. But Butler was able to take care of the Wildcats. And Butler would be able to get to play in their hometown of Indianapolis. This drew of course many comparisons to the movie Hoosiers as well as the Milan Miracle that ultimately led to the film. In Hoosiers, Hickory was a tiny school that came out of nowhere, a school that won for "all the small schools that never had the chance to get here". But in real life, Milan was a small school yet still bigger than how Hickory was portrayed in the movie. Milan also did not come from out of nowhere either, having had lots of recently successful teams and was a favorite to reach the Indiana state finals the year they won it. In other words, Milan was Butler. It is not quite the movie storyline of Hickory, but it is as good an underdog story as there can realistically be. Now Butler needed to make like Milan.
But the one catch was that Butler would not be playing where both real life Milan did and reel life Hickory did in the finals. Milan played those last games of the Indiana state tournament in Hinkle Fieldhouse, and that is where Hoosiers was filmed as well. Butler had played at Hinkle Fieldhouse all the time since that is home for them. Instead, it would be the team who normally played at Hinkle who would be going to the much bigger facility. And for Butler, this would mean going across their town of Indianapolis to Lucas Oil Stadium which housed the city's NFL team. And as most TMM readers know, Lucas Oil Stadium is one of the sports world's most evil venues. It provided the inspiration for Kyle's famous "Sports Bubble" piece that got Kyle fired from ESPN. Now our last mid-major had to go to the Sports Bubble Stadium and be the one that overcomes all of the evil of sports. Butler would start against Big Ten superpower Michigan State. The Spartans were always there in the Final Four, and we were counting on Butler to take them out. I had tried to tune the game out, too nervous knowing what was on the line. I went to a college baseball game instead between South Carolina and Mississippi State, won by MSU 8-7 in the only game USC lost among the 22 games I saw them play that year in baseball. That game went nearly four hours, enough time for me to delay knowing what was going on with our last mid-major. I knew the end was near, and wanted to be ready to move on. But Butler had kept hope alive, beating the Spartans. Now Butler had to win just one more game, and the dream of all us on TMM would be fulfilled. Knowing that Butler was playing for All of Us and Each of Us, they would be going up against Duke. For a mid-major to win a national title, Butler had to beat a school that represents all of the evil of college basketball while playing in a stadium that represents the evil of the Sports Bubble. That was what was at stake.
That Monday evening I had my Local Government Administration course at USC, so I would be missing the first half while driving home from Columbia. I did not mind missing the first half, because an entire game with so much at stake would be too much. It felt like a big High Point game given how invested I was in seeing a mid-major win a national championship. It was the one thing Our Game needed the most. I was tired of that magical chance being theoretical. I wanted Butler to win so that chance could be real. We needed Butler to win so that chance could be real for all of us and each of us. And if Butler lost, Duke would be the national champion and the status quo would stay the same. When seemingly the future of your sport and how you view it is at stake, it is just too much. It felt like more than a basketball game, hoping that a Butler win could put a dent into the Sports Bubble and the powers that be in big-time sports.
And of course when I turned the game on, Duke was ahead. But the Blue Devils were never ahead by much, and seemed that hope could not die. Butler needed a big run. But that Butler team under Brad Stevens was never a team that won by getting hot and overpowering a team like Duke. Butler had gotten their previous upsets by taking the lead early on and using good defense to hold on. This game, Duke was holding on. During the game, Kyle tweeted that since we all began the season rooting for separate team that we should support Butler by wearing something from our schools. So I pulled an old HPU shirt out of my drawer and watched the end of the game feeling like things were slipping away. But Duke could not quite put the game away, and our hero Gordon Hayward had a chance to put Butler ahead in the final seconds. But he missed, and I had given up on Butler. Even with a missed free throw, Butler could only manage a desperation shot from Hayward that rimmed out. I remember thinking, "Wow that almost could have gone in".
But I never spent much time thinking about how close it was to actually going in...... because it did not. One of us had made it inside the Sports Bubble, and the Sports Bubble won. Kyle tweeted after the game, "It almost did not end in a loss". But I still felt frustrated, because it still did. The records still show Duke as having won the national championship in 2010. A mid-major has still not won a national championship in quite some time. UNLV in 1990 was in the Big West, but I am not sure you can really call a team that today is in the Mountain West and was then coached by Jerry Tarkanian to be a true mid-major. Not since 1963 has a true mid-major won a national title, which was by Loyola Chicago which still holds Hoops Nation membership today in the Horizon League.
And what made this Butler loss sting especially hard was that I was not sure we would ever get another chance. The NCAA had been considering a 96 team bracket, which would make nearly all mid-majors have to play an extra game to get to be able to play against the big boys. Ultimately the NCAA only expanded to 68 teams, which while Kyle celebrated as having dodged a bullet I still felt let down since that still targeted the poorer conferences of Hoops Nation like my Big South. But yet we somehow overcame that as well. VCU like George Mason five years earlier was selected as an 11 seed, but this time they had to go to Dayton's Quad P.I.G. to get it. And VCU not only did, they went all the way to the Final Four as well. And the number of upsets by mid-majors helped assist Butler to another national championship appearance. But again they would lose to another superpower from above the Red Line in UConn.
But we will never see Butler make a glorious run for mid-majors ever again. And that is because Brad Stevens like so many coaches before him will make the move above the Red Line. Only this time, there is a catch: Stevens is taking Butler with him in his journey to the other side. Butler in order to keep Stevens has spent a lot of money, and the result of that effort to stay competitive has landed Butler in the New Big East founded by the "Catholic Seven". Butler's final loss this season came to Marquette, a Big East school they will be joining. I have seen some Twitter discussion of whether the New Big East will be a true major conference. Kyle has said he will be getting rid of the Red Line, so we will have to decide once again who is a mid-major and who is not. But the New Big East has an average athletic budget of $25 million and an average men's basketball budget of over $6 million. Those are definitely major conference numbers, particularly in how it impacts Our Game. If Butler is to stay a mid-major, then Georgetown and Marquette will have to be classified as mid-majors. And I do not see those schools as having much in common with places like Charleston Southern and USC Upstate. This site exempted Gonzaga for many years as a school with lots of national exposure even without football money. And the New Big East is basically a conference full of Gonzagas. They have a big television deal in place, and will continue to show that college sports outside football can still be profitable. They will be getting their own piece of the Sports Bubble, while the schools left behind in the Other 24 will not. I know it is going to be hard for some of our longtime readers who are big Butler fans, but Butler is no longer one of us. This big glorious run they had back in 2010 has led them to riches, and they have finally gotten to the other side. Butler deserves much praise for completing the goal that we all have for our programs. I still would love to someday work in a trip to Hinkle into my Christmas vacation plans. But in the context of "All of Us, Each of Us", the Big East is not one of us. A school in the Big South, SoCon, or even the Bulldogs' old conference mates back in the Horizon League have little in common with Butler's new conference home. Letting go is never easy. But we must accept that our old friends at Butler who made this fantastic run that almost did not end in a loss haved moved on. If we are basketball hipsters like Danny Spewak and Craig Caswell
have said, Butler is then like the rock band that we loved until they signed with a major record label. We won't have any "official" Red Line Upsets on here tracked on this website next season, but Butler losing to those left in the Other 24 will now be reason for celebration. Butler's role in Our Game will be reversed in the future. That is sad to see, but we hope that they will never forget where they came from and that their fans will never be Billy Packer-like complainers when mid-majors get at-large bids.
So as for now, we still must remember that there are still some mid-major powers left. Some of them have been left feeling dismayed watching a conference rival leave for the New Big East. And one of those is still going even after that conference rival has gone down. That team of course is Wichita State, coached by the only coach to reach the Round of 32 with a Big South school. The Shockers have turned the rest of the field to wheat so far, and if they win two more games will have finally reached the goal we have dreamed about. And we all can hope that they can go farther than Butler ever did, and have it not end in a loss. But unfortunately, that is the one TMM principle that still cannot die. It always ends in a loss. At 6:09 P.M. tomorrow night, there will be a basketball game. My plan for tomorrow is to spend the afternoon at a Division II baseball doubleheader at Newberry College. Newberry was where the season began for me, where I logged in from a truck stop to join the start of Season 9 by drafting Torrey Craig and the opening chat. And when I get home, it will likely be around halftime like it was during Butler's first national championship appearance. And while I keep hope, I know what always happens at the end, whether it comes Saturday or Monday. My final words here are to Wichita State: Change everything we have ever known about college basketball and its status quo and how things are supposed to be.
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