Friday, September 22

Butler captures the spirit of the game in run for NCAA title

You couldn’t have asked for a more storybook matchup Monday night.

Butler, plagued by the moniker “mid-major,” was bowing before the national audience for a chance in the spotlight, a chance to prove itself as a quality team in men’s college basketball.

But at the other bench was the perennially dominant team in the country: Duke.

And despite the linguistic beauty of the lowly Butler versus the mighty Duke, I couldn’t help but wonder, how big is this for fans here at UCLA?

UCLA made three Final Fours in a row, including a 2006 shot at the national championships, but in our absence in this year’s tournament ““ and in a general down year for the Pac-10 ““ I wondered how big a deal the championship game was.

But then again, Butler, with all its comparisons to the movie “Hoosiers,” pulled a series of upsets and put together a 25-game winning streak to make it to Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night.

So to fourth-year psychology student Jeff Freeman, it’s all about the underdog.

“I’m rooting for Butler ““ I like to root for the underdog,” Freeman said. “So it’s going to be exciting, but I’m a big Bruin fan, so I’m not as excited as I am for the Bruins.”

And with good reason. After a forgettable season, the glory of UCLA’s Final Four runs is but a fleeting memory.

Freeman said he’s still a basketball fan and that Monday’s game was still big. And I think he’s right. Lucas Oil was the biggest stage in the country, and with tens of thousands packed in the football stadium (yeah, not a typo) and millions more watching, Butler got to show its stuff.

Names like Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward are now part of the sports vernacular, and for good reason: They’re both way easier to spell than Krzyzewski.

And who can help but love Butler’s story? From barely getting past an arguably underperforming UCLA team in the 76 Classic on Nov. 27, 2009, the Bulldogs have been winning their way to the top. A four-point upset over Syracuse? A healthy whooping of Kansas State? A thrilling victory against basketball guru Tom Izzo’s Michigan State?


Don’t get me wrong, UCLA’s run to the top and holding ground for three years was great to watch for me, as a high school student in 2006, a UCLA applicant in 2007 and a wee freshman in 2008.

Freeman even saw UCLA at the height of its glory, at the Elite Eight in 2007.

“That was the best basketball experience of my life,” he said.

So why would the game be big for us at UCLA?

It shows that any team can make it to the top, and not just on a whim. I’m not talking about Northern Iowa’s front line of lumberjacks leading the school to an upset or two, I’m talking about a Butler team putting together an awesome season and defying all the bracketology Ph.D.s.

And if we’re not the sexy pick to win it all, it doesn’t mean we’re out. College basketball is not a place for big-money players to show off the slam dunks for a season and leave for the NBA. College basketball is a place for those with the passion and drive to work at their craft, their art form, and defy the odds.

Butler’s rise to prominence is a step in that direction, and I think college basketball is going to see teams like that more and more.

Will you be watching? E-mail Mashhood at [email protected]

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