What The Hell Just Happened?

I don’t remember watching an NCAA final and being as perplexed as I was yesterday.  Usually, I know who I’m rooting for.  If it’s one of those rare years when neither Penn nor Syracuse is in it (ahem), then there is probably some other team that I’ve taken a liking to, or, if not, then I’m probably just rooting for the underdog.

Butler was as great of an underdog story as I remember watching, but I wasn’t really rooting for the Bulldogs yesterday.  Nothing against them, but it was hard for me to get my head around the idea that the Butler Bulldogs would actually be the national champions.  Now that the game is over, my thoughts and feelings about the whole thing are no clearer than they were when the game started.  In no particular order, these are those thoughts and feelings:

1.  Appreciation.  That was a fantastic college basketball game, between two excellent teams.  Duke rolled out a solid Duke team, combining stars and role players.  And Butler is good.  Real good.  This is not a team lacking talent, that gets by with a system that compensates for its talent deficiency (ala Princeton).  Nor is it a team that relies on one star player (ala Weber State relying on Harold “the Show” Arceneaux) to slay a powerhouse.  This team has a number of weapons on offense, and plays stifling defense.

And, of course, I not only appreciated the teams themselves, but also the story.  One on hand, you have one of the most prestigious programs in the country.  On the other hand, you have the closest thing to a real-life Hickory High School from Hoosiers.

I love this game.

2.  Confusion.  Butler is a great story because it is able to achieve so much even though it has a basketball budget of less than $2 million, while some of the power programs have budgets of more than $10 million.  Kudos to Butler.

The flip side of that coin, though, is that tens of millions of dollars are being wasted.  If I was in charge of an enterprise with a budget of $10 million, and I just got showed up by a competitor with a budget of $2 million, I’d be pretty angry.  Basically, the system is not supposed to give Butler a national championship.  The fact that Butler came within one shot of winning means that the system is broken; lots of people in the system, with big budgets, are very bad at their jobs.

3.  Anger.  As a fan of the game, while I appreciate what Butler did, the realization that the system is broken makes me somewhat angry.  What are all of these programs with huge basketball budgets doing with that money?  The teams with the biggest budgets seem not to be recruiting the right guys.  The “experts” whose job it is to tell the casual fan what is going on in the game do not present the right stories.  (Though, to be fair, the people who rank the teams knew that Butler was good — why the Tournament Committee decided to make Butler a #5 seed is beyond me.)  The games that get featured on TV are not necessarily the ones with the best teams in them.

I don’t hold it against the “experts” that they didn’t predict Butler making the finals — Butler went on a great run in a single elimination tournament, and that’s part of the beauty of the game.  I do, though, blame them for not mentioning Gordon Hayward when they put together their pre-season All-American teams.  I do blame them for not putting Butler games on television.  I do blame them for not recruiting Shelvin Mack or Matt Howard as aggressively as they recruit McDonald’s All-Americans who are going to leave them after one year.

4.  Wonder.  Are mid-majors really poised to do just as well as the majors over the long term, or is this a one-shot deal?  Well, for Butler specifically, part of the answer is in the hands of Gordon Hayward.  If he comes back, joining Mack and Howard on next year’s team, these guys will be a force.  In the longer term, the answer is largely in the hands of Brad Stevens.  He’s got a good thing going there, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t be able to keep it going for a while.  But, if he jumps to a job at a bigger program, then we’ll probably look back on it as a one shot deal.

Not to put too much weight on his shoulders, but Stevens seems to have a lot of say in whether the mid-majors can really compete with the big boys.  Maybe I’m overstating it, but it seems to me that, if he turns down a job at a bigger program to stay at Butler, and he continues to succeed there, he’s basically sending the message that mid-majors can compete at the highest level.  But, if he uses his success simply as a stepping stone to go to a bigger program, it’s hard to see what would have to happen for mid-majors to really compete on the same level as the big boys over the long term.

5.  Enlightenment.  Because there is so much turnover in college hoops on a year-to-year basis, and because talented freshmen have such a big impact on the game, I think we sometimes go too far when we analyze each season in a vacuum.  Each of the teams in this year’s Final Four was in last year’s tournament; Michigan State had made the finals, and Duke had made the Sweet 16.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and I’m not saying that I now know something that, if I had known it three weeks ago, would have enabled me to predict what was going to happen in this year’s tournament.  I am saying, though, that next year, I’m going to pay much more attention to the teams that (i) played in this year’s tournament and (ii) return most of their starters, than I am going to pay to the teams that ESPN highlights on College GameDay.

Especially Butler.

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