NCAA: It’s Butler and Gonzaga’s time of year
AP Basketball Writer
How ’bout them Bulldogs?
It’s a legitimate question every year when the NCAA tournament gets under way.
There’s two Bulldogs who are spoken of that way almost every March.
Butler and Gonzaga. Gonzaga and Butler.
They are schools who have their own niche in the world of college basketball.
Their conferences are never going to be able to mix smoothly in the world of college football money. They just don’t belong in that mid-major category, a world embraced by some schools for its ability to provide athletic sympathy when needed and decried by others as a brand that stigmatizes those programs looking for respect.
“There are certain programs that maybe they play in a mid-major so-called conference, but they’ve been doing it long enough that they aren’t really a mid-major team,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said Friday, a day before his top-seeded Panthers played Butler in the third round of the Southeast Regional.
“I hate to put those terms on teams, but, you know, certain programs at certain leagues have done it for long enough that they have resources,” Dixon said, “they have the players, they have their tradition to play with anybody in the country.”
Butler has been in the NCAA tournament seven times since 2001. In those appearances the Bulldogs have won 12 games, including Thursday’s 60-58 buzzer-beater over Old Dominion.
There’s only one way last year’s NCAA tournament could have gone any better for Butler and that would have been with a national championship. The Bulldogs lost to Duke in the title game when Gordon Hayward’s shot from midcourt hit the backboard and rim before falling out.
That was no fairy tale ride to the Final Four, either. It was the third time this decade that Butler reached the round of 16 representing the Horizon League.
“We always believe in ourselves and I think Gonzaga would say the same thing,” said Butler’s Matt Howard, who set the jaw-jarring screen for Hayward on the last shot of last year’s final game. “So it doesn’t really matter to us if people believe in us or not. We’re going to believe in each other and go out and compete the best that we can and we want to win and we think that we can win, so that’s how we approach it.
“And if we have to prove ourselves all over again,” Howard said, “that’s fine.”
Gonzaga has been to the NCAA tournament every year since 1999, all but the first of that streak under coach Mark Few. These Bulldogs win in March, too.
Only in 2007 and 2008 did Gonzaga not win at least one game, and there were three years with two wins and another with three, meaning the Bulldogs were within a win of the Final Four.
Gonzaga, the perennial champion of the West Coast Conference, won this year’s NCAA tournament opener as an 11 seed with an 86-71 dismantling of St. John’s. Next up is third-seeded BYU and Jimmer Fredette, the country’s most popular player.
“People know we’re a good program, so I would think that it probably doesn’t surprise ’em so much anymore,” Few said. “But the expectation issue? I think we had a great learning process this year for our players, our staff, our fans, people who follow the program.
“This thing is really hard to get to. There’s been really, really good teams over the years that have not made it, from the Carolinas, to the Syracuses, to UCLAs that have not been able to make the NCAA tournament. There’s nothing guaranteed. It’s not a birthright. You have to earn your way,” Few said. “Now that we’re here, we’re playing good and we want to stay here.”
There have been other teams in recent years who have carried the mantle for the mid-majors.
George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association reached the Final Four in 2006. Davidson of the Southern Conference had a 3 in the air against eventual national champion Kansas that could have sent them to the Final Four in 2008.
Nobody has been as consistent in March as Butler and Gonzaga.
“It may sound corny, but we want to represent Butler well because of all those players who went ahead of us,” center Andrew Smith said. “That’s not the only reason you want to win. You want to win, but we see those former players in open gym all summer and you don’t want to let them down.”
On Friday, Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens sounded a lot like he did last year after Butler won the first of its five-game winning streak in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re excited to be part of it,” he said. “We really are.”
His counterpart from Gonzaga agreed.
“I think about just trying to get these guys ready to have as great a year as we possibly can,” Few said Friday. “Here we are. We have an opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 tomorrow. We need to take full advantage of it and play the best game of the year. I’m just not the kind of guy that looks for validation or anything like that. I think our success speaks for itself.”
It’s impossible for schools without football to produce the revenue that members of BCS conferences generate. But while there may not be the resources available, this is basketball.
It’s only five guys at a time. It’s a total of 13 scholarships. There is a chance for smaller schools to succeed in the NCAA tournament. Some do it over and over.
How ’bout them Bulldogs?