The glass slipper remains and the party still continues for the Butler Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament, as they prepare to take on the Goliath Duke Blue Devils for the national championship. Intriguing not only for their mid-major status and undefeated record in the Horizon League this season, Butler is also a fun team to watch for their selfless brand of basketball and focused approach to each game. It’s not always pretty, but they have gotten the job done behind solid defense and effective ball movement on offense. They are now in the process of shedding the Cinderella tag after wins against formidable teams such as (1)Syracuse, (2)Kansas State, and (5)Michigan State in their last three tournament games. Butler has held all five teams, their other opponents being Murray State and UTEP, under 60 points and has not lost since December 22 to UAB. That is a 26-game winning streak the Bulldogs are protecting, so don’t expect them to roll over and give up just because they are playing Duke.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, have looked strong in the face of adversity and come out on top of some close games, but that is what is expected of #1 seeds in the tournament. Champions find ways to win, and the Duke program under Mike Krzyzewski is no stranger to playing in the Final Four. Having said that, their last few wins to reach this point have come against lower seeded teams than Butler’s run. Still, Duke has scored 70 or more points in four of five tournament games, so I’ll be looking for a good matchup between their offense and Butler’s defense.
Every year, basketball fans clamor to latch onto a feel-good underdog in this tournament that eventually gets knocked out by a bigger, more talented team. This tournament started with more than a couple to choose from: Northern Iowa, St. Mary’s, Cornell and the perennial torch-bearers of said movement, Gonzaga. I’d trace it back to 1979 when Larry Bird’s Indiana State team reached the championship game before losing to Magic Bird’s Michigan State squad. The bar was raised in 1985 when Villanova won the title as an 8 seed over Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown, a 1 seed. That tournament run included wins against (1)Michigan, (5)Maryland, (2)North Carolina, and (2)Memphis just to get to the Finals, let alone winning it all. Who can forget the 1990 tournament when Loyola Marymount played on guts and emotions just days after teammate Hank Gathers died of a heart attack during the West Coast Conference tournament? The Lions reached the Elite Eight before being ousted by eventual champs UNLV. More recently, George Mason had a chance to make history as the lowest seed to win the championship when they reached the Final Four as an 11 seed. Those dreams came crashing against Florida, that year’s tournament winner, but the excitement was memorable. Tonight, Butler takes the reigns on the mid-major movement and tries to dethrone a longstanding basketball powerhouse. I’ve thought Butler was overmatched for their last three games and wrote them out of my bracket long ago. I won’t do it again.
My pick: Butler 64, Duke 60