Is Butler's success bad for college basketball?
As Butler pulled away from Florida in overtime to advance to its second consecutive Final Four, a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) posted the following on Twitter:
Regardless of your rooting interest, Butler making the Final Four two years in a row would be bad for college basketball. Keeping small schools down means big schools have a better chance of winning. Better players stay longer for chance to win. It's more fun for fans to root for Cinderella, sure, but college basketball benefits with better players staying in school longer.
This struck me as crazy talk. Butler's success is good for college basketball because it keeps fans interested in games. Butler is a breath of fresh air, a small private school succeeding in a world dominated by huge state school athletic powerhouses. The team has four-year players, a young, charismatic head coach and even an adorable mascot, Blue II, a 7-year old English bulldog. Fans are keenly interested in the narrative because there is nothing better than the ultimate underdog story. Using Twitter as an informal focus group, everybody is rooting for Butler tonight (except for current and former students at the University of Connecticut, of course).
Viewership of the 2010 championship game between Butler and Duke was up a remarkable 34 percent compared with the previous year, which featured traditional big school powers North Carolina and Michigan State. The novelty has not worn off this year with Butler back in the championship game. In fact, given the unpredictability of college basketball and the Bulldogs' midseason struggles in which it appeared an NCAA tournament appearance was in jeopardy, it's even more amazing they are back in the finals again.
As for my nameless friend's assertions that the best college players will stay in school longer for a chance to win, this seems far-fetched. Underclassmen have been turning pro early for years (and some high school students skipped college entirely). Whether Butler makes the Final Four or wins a championship won't change that either way. From an early age, top basketball prospects are besieged by agents, shoe reps, AAU coaches and other outside influences. It's ultimately the lure of money that cuts their college careers short. Whether it's Kentucky, UConn, UNC or Butler that wins the NCAA championship, the only way "one and done" ends is if the NBA changes its draft eligibility rules.
Is Butler's success bad for college basketball? Absolutely not. Let's enjoy this remarkable story while we can. It may never happen again. Or maybe it will. We don't know. Isn't that why it's so great?