COLUMN: Butler more than just a Cinderella story



Looking back at the National Championship, was it simply an unfortunate ending to a second chance at a fairytale season?

Perhaps. Frozen in time will be the snapshots of teary-eyed Butler senior Matt Howard in the locker room and walking to the postgame podium.

However, I believe the 2011 title game served more as confirmation that Butler’s back-to-back appearances in the National Championship makes the private university in Indianapolis anything but a Cinderella team.

Lost in the Bulldogs’ horrid shooting performance—18.8 percent from the field, the lowest mark ever in a championship game—at Reliant Stadium on Monday night was the celebration of the list of the top-quality opponents Butler had knocked off during its two-year stretch of remarkable postseason runs.

Butler’s path to this year’s Final Four included victories over three top-five seeds (No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 2 Florida). Last year, Butler knocked off three others (No. 1 Syracuse, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 5 Michigan State).

Quickly, name how many teams from the so-called power six conferences can claim such an accomplishment over the same time period? Ponder away, but the answer is zero.

It would be fair to believe that one successful season might’ve been a fluke, a wonderful tale straight out of Brothers Grimm, but Butler’s sustained success proves that it was wearing the same basketball sneakers the big boys wear, not a glass slipper.

In 2006, when 11th-seeded George Mason reached the Final Four, that was the epitome of a Cinderella team whose March beanstalk was swiftly hacked at season’s end as the Patriots plummeted back to earth. George Mason missed the Tournament the following year, restocking the talent lost as a result of a stellar senior class graduating.

Before Butler’s two trips to the title game, Butler’s now-departing senior class, notably Howard, Shawn Vanzant and Zach Hahn, made winning a staple of Bulldog basketball as soon as Brad Stevens assumed coaching duties for the 2007-08 season, after former Butler head coach Todd Lickliter departed for the seemingly greener pastures at Iowa.

In Stevens’ four years at the helm, he has guided the Bulldogs to a 117-25 record and given hope to all mid-major programs that a breakthrough is possible, akin to what Gonzaga achieved roughly a decade ago.

“It’s not about what was on the basketball court, it’s about being around (the seniors), the coaches and just being a part of this, period,” Vanzant said. “To make it to the National Championship two years in a row, I think that speaks for itself.”

Truth be told, we’re a Gordon Hayward halfcourt heave and a reversal of an anomaly of a shooting night away from having to try and explain where Butler ranks among college basketball’s bluebloods.

Consider that despite the poor shooting performance, Butler led UConn at halftime on Monday and still had a chance to win a game against technically college hoops’ best team in 2011, if only shots would’ve started to fall.

The Bulldogs’ defense was right on par with the stronger, taller and, yes, huskier UConn players.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” UConn head coach Jim Calhoun said. ”I know where the Horizon League is, but Butler really plays defense. They play defense.”

The problem for Butler is that its place within the mediocre Horizon League brings with it a perceived reputation as a mid-major and consequently, Cinderella team at this time of year, which sullies its Final Four appearances somewhat. Some may believe Butler isn’t a good team, but rather a team capable of working magic for one month out of the year.

Two Final Four runs can’t be conjured unless you’re a good team. And if anything, Butler’s back-to-back title appearances are made more impressive because it was the first team to achieve the feat as a No. 3 seed or lower both times (and the Bulldogs’ low seeding is a direct result of the weaker conference they compete in).

Win or lose, this team traveled the arduous path to the Final Four—twice.

“I don’t love ‘em any less because we lost,” Stevens said.

The sports community already loves Butler, sure, but it shouldn’t respect their accomplishment less because of its perceived Cinderella status.

For the clock has yet to strike midnight on these Bulldogs.