Butler vs. UConn: Why the NCAA Basketball Championship Is No David and Goliath Story

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Some college hoops fans want to root for Butler because they're the underdogs. They're not. Here's why.

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Reuters/Jim Young


Saturday night, I was settling in to watch basketball with a group of my closest friends—by which I mean "a bunch of people on Facebook and Twitter, many of whom I've never met in real life." Just as Virginia Commonwealth University and Butler were getting ready for tip-off, someone posted a status update to the effect that they hated to see either team lose, because they like to root for an underdog.

Sure, everyone loves an underdog. Too bad we don't have one to watch tonight, when Butler (who won on Saturday) plays University of Connecticut.

Because I didn't feel like being Mr. Snarky Snarkington online, and because the individual who posted this comment happens to be an attractive young lady, yours truly refrained from pointing out that Butler is about as close to an underdog as Facebook is to actual human contact.

We all know the Butler mythology—and anyone who doesn't will hear Jim Nantz recite it reverentially tonight: the tiny, no-name Cinderella-school from Indiana that will rise up, Hoosiers-like, to defeat Goliath, or Simon bar Sinister, or whoever it is that underdogs are supposed to beat.

Thrilling stuff. Cinematic, even. Except it's not true. Not really. If Butler wins tonight, the only people who will be surprised will be those who haven't been paying attention.

Here are a few ways to tell when a team isn't an underdog.

Like when they make the Final Four two years in a row—becoming the first team from Indiana ever to do so, as Butler has. Or when they return two seniors and junior from that team—the one that came within a single, last-second bucket of beating Duke to win it all.

Another indicator that a team is no underdog is when, like Butler, they beat the Pitt Panthers, the top seed in the East bracket, and the two-time National Champion Florida Gators. Virginia Commonwealth, who ran top-seeded Kansas off the floor, didn't get a single fast-break point against the Bulldogs.

Sure, the Bulldogs started slow this season, losing half of their first eight games. But they gelled by season's end, buying into head coach Brad Stevens' scheme of relentless defense, and beating upstart Wisconsin-Milwaukee to win the Horizon League championship. Butler now sits with a 28-9 overall record, including a gaudy mark of 17-3 at home or on a neutral court—and tonight's crowd inside Houston's Reliant Stadium will be anything but neutral. The Bulldogs are on a redonkulous 14-game winning streak, and have recently gone 6-1 in tournament games decided by fewer than five points—a mark directly attributable to Stevens' coaching those close, end-of-game scenarios every day in practice.

Need more reasons that Butler is no fluke? How about Gordon Hayward, who was a first-round NBA draft pick last year, or Shelvin Mack, likely to be drafted this year if he opts out of school. Or consider that Butler is the only program in the nation to place a player on the academic All-American team in each of the past four seasons—all signs Stevens is getting some talented basketball players and quality human beings to compete at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

And what about that building, the Bulldog's historic home court that was famously used as backdrop in the movie Hoosiers? The old place is getting a $25 million renovation—presumably, the baskets will still be the same height—always a sure sign that your program has arrived.

Tonight's National Championship game should be a lot of fun, and no one could blame you for rooting against UConn. But this no is David and Goliath match-up. This no Luke-against-the-Death Star situation. These are just two good teams, playing great ball. If you simply can't live without a basketball underdog to root for, don't look for one tonight. Your best bet is probably Tuesday, cheering for the women of Notre Dame.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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