The national championship game in college basketball is usually a fairly neutral affair. Alums and locals root for their respective schools, and the rest of the country splits the difference. Tonight, however, throw all placidity out the window. America is Butler nation, baby.
Sure, most people pulled for Butler to beat Duke last year. But this season, Bulldog fever will be much more intense, for several reasons. First, as much as many people despise Duke, the school is also a national basketball brand with loyalists who have no formal ties to the school, or North Carolina. Mike Krzyzewski has built the Dallas Cowboys of college ball.
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This year’s opponent, the University of Connecticut, is much easier to completely dismiss. With all due respect to the people of Connecticut, and those who attended the school, why should anyone be fired up about UConn? The school is an NBA factory – Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics, Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzlies, and Emeka Okufor of the New Orleans Hornets are among the professional Huskies – which makes UConn enormously successful, but less than lovable. Further, in February the NCAA suspended coach Jim Calhoun for three games next season, and reduced the number of scholarships the Huskies can offer players, because of recruiting violations committed under his watch. So in the eyes of many, he’s a cheater. So not lovable.
Even more, college sports have had a rough year. For example, a Kentucky recruit was banished because he took money from a pro team in his native Turkey. In football, we found out that the father of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton tried to sell his son to the highest bidder before he landed at Auburn. At Ohio State, coach Jim Tressel covered up accusations that a few players were swapping memorabilia in exchange for tattoos and cash. Tressel was suspended two games next season, though in an act of self-punishment, he increased it to five.
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So along comes Butler, a tiny private school in Indianapolis with its baby-faced coach and clean-cut program. The Bulldogs graduate 83% of its players; UConn has a 31% rate. What’s not to love about Butler? Plus, people will be pulling for the Bulldogs more this year due to the painful way in which they lost last season. At the buzzer, a half-court heave by Butler’s Gordon Heyward, who is now playing for the Utah Jazz, was a touch too hard, and bounced off the rim. The shot would have given Butler the title, and America one of its all-time greatest sports moments. “Is it possible that more people were rooting for the Red Army hockey team in 1980 than will be rooting for UConn tomorrow night?” wrote Mike Vaccaro, sports columnist for the New York Post, on Twitter.
Okay, the rooting interest won’t be as lopsided for Butler as it was for the Americans in the Miracle on Ice. Still, there’s an overwhelming fan favorite, and both teams know it. “I think having that support, it’s not critical, but it does help,” says Butler’s Matt Howard, whose impeccable sense for the ball allows him to collect junk points around the basket. “You’re human, and when you have people behind you, it gets you fired up.”
At the same time, hatred can also inspire. UConn’s players could lament that millions of casual sports fans will be despising them tonight. After all, kids in their late-teens and early-twenties generally want to be liked. But if Husky feelings are hurting, the players aren’t showing it. “A lot of people have been rooting against us all year,” says star UConn point guard Kemba Walker. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I’d actually rather have people root against us. It motivates me and my teammates.” That’s trouble, because Walker, an enthralling individual player, is capable of dropping forty points on any given night.
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In college hoops, you’d have to go back over a quarter century, to 1985, to find a championship game in which as many people pulled for one team. Though when Villanova faced Georgetown that season, the circumstances were a bit different. Villanova, like Butler, was an eight-seed and a compelling underdog tale. But people rooted against Georgetown for more sinister reasons. The school’s aggressive style, dubbed Hoya Paranoia, turned off many fans, and it didn’t help that coach John Thompson, a hulking, intimidating, 6’10” African-American man, fielded an all-black roster. Simply put, Georgetown scared the pants off a lot of white people.
So Horace Broadnax, a reserve on that Georgetown team which featured Patrick Ewing, the top pick in the ’85 NBA Draft, knows how it feels to be the hated overdog. “We didn’t feel we did anything wrong,” says Broadnax, now the coach at Savannah State University. “But coach Thompson took something that was somewhat negative, and used it as a charging force.” Georgetown’s us-against-the-world mentality produced outstanding success, including a title the previous year. But that night, the Hoyas fell short, losing to Villanova in a stunning upset, 66-64. A Butler win Monday night won’t be quite as surprising – after all, UConn went just 9-9 in conference play, and the Bulldogs are no fluke, having made a second straight title game. But few ever expected a small school like Butler to win the whole damn thing.
So what advice would Broadnax offer UConn? “You know, we played our ass off that night,” he says. “But we had to dig a little bit deeper. If you’re tired, get your ass out of the game. Get those loose balls. Don’t take it for granted.”
Wise words. Though few would mind if they fell on deaf ears.
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