UConn’s Kemba Walker, who was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, shows that big conference teams still soar over mid majors. Photo by Eric Gay (AP)
For a second year in a row Butler has to deal with losing the national championship game. Photo by Eric Gay (AP)
By Michael Brown,
Sentinel Sports Writer
Aside from the atrocious play on display during Monday night’s college basketball championship between UConn and Butler, two other developments are obviously going to be set in stone: the mid-majors are here to stay, but the big boys will always win.
It was hard to draw such a conclusion after UConn defeated Butler, 53-41.
Butler shot a tournament worst-ever 18.8 percent from the field while UConn shot 34.5 percent on their way to winning Coach Jim Calhoun a third national title.
If ever a mid-major was going to win a title, this was the year against a good, but not great UConn team. Butler clanked away every shot they had to steal a national title and inspire hope for every small conference school.
But instead of slaying the Huskies, a mediocre Big East team, Butler wilted under the spotlight which was a surprise, considering the Bulldogs were one-shot away from beating Duke last year for the title.
However, Cinderella’s dance with destiny ended as the clock struck twelve and the Bulldogs turned into pups. There simply was no shift in college basketball’s hierarchy and order was maintained, with another team winning from a BCS conference.
Prior to Butler making the title game two years in a row, George Mason was the trailblazer, making the Final Four in 2006.
However, George Mason’s Final Four experience was short-lived. Like Butler, they eventually fell to a team from a power conference (Florida, SEC). George Mason made a nice run, but the Gators won its first of back-to-back championships.
Likely, what we witnessed in 2006 and in 2011, with VCU also making the Final Four, will probably become the norm. Every few years, a mid-major will get hot and make a run in the tournament only to meet their fate in the Final Four.
And that’s OK. The 68-team field is designed to be a free for all, and the occasional underdog breaking through is all the more interesting.
There are many reasons why this new reality exists and many of them have been discussed ad nauseam. For instance, the big schools losing players after a year or two definitely plays a factor. Not only are coaches losing talent, but continuity and leadership.
Case in point, UConn’s Kemba Walker’s a junior, but he’s surrounded by freshmen such as Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. Although they’re all talented, Walker’s leadership kept this team together.
The Huskies finished ninth in the Big East and hit a rough skid during the middle of the season. As talented as Walker is, if he was a freshman, they probably wouldn’t have made the tournament.
The mid-majors can also take solace in the fact that kids across the nation can see their programs all throughout the season. It used to be that teams such as Butler, VCU and Gonzaga weren’t seen until ESPN’s Championship Week.
But that’s changed. Nearly every conference has a TV contract, if not nationally then regionally. A blue chip athlete from New York no longer has to worry about his folks not being able to see him play if he decides to head to Kentucky or San Diego State.
Programs such as Butler and VCU also aren’t likely to attract the elite McDonald’s All-American five stars. Nine times out of ten, kids playing in the elite showcases are your one-and-dones.
Butler lucked up last season. Gordon Hayward left after his sophomore year and was a lottery pick by the Utah Jazz. But as Gonzaga has shown over the years, that’s an exception and not the rule.
Keeping players for three and four years minimum allows the mid-majors to actually build a team as opposed to shuffling a different lineup every year. Coaches also do not have to hold their collective breathes while they wait for 18 and 19 year olds to decide whether to stay or go.
Ultimately, that advantage is a small one.
Elite coaches at schools like Duke, North Carolina, UConn and Kansas like the “problem” of losing guys early. It means that they’re recruiting players good enough to turn pro.
And no matter how great of an X and O guy a coach is, the game comes down to talent.
Kentucky lost five underclassmen to the NBA’s first round last year, but they made the Final Four this season and had a chance to win. More than likely, Coach John Calipari will lose freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones to the NBA this year, but do you think he’s sweating?
I think not.
Calipari’s already secured the consensus No. 1 recruiting class for next season, including four McDonald’s All-Americans. Do you think he would switch places with Butler’s Brad Stevens?
Chances are he wouldn’t. And for good reason.
While Butler and VCU will struggle to make the Final Four once every several years, Kentucky’s got a shot every year due to a new batch of NBA caliber talent stepping on campus each year.
I’m willing to bet Kentucky will be back in the Final Four before any mid-major. The mid-majors will likely crash the Big Dance every few seasons, but the power conference teams will always cut down the nets.
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