Deep in the heart of the football state of all football states, Texas, the NCAA will decide its Division I men’s basketball champion this weekend. Excuse me while I vomit.
Think about this for a moment: the national champion in men’s basketball is going to be determined at the Final Four inside Houston’s Reliant Stadium, an outlandishly oversized (isn’t everything in Texas outlandishly oversized?) Taj Mahal for football.
Most gridiron-crazed citizens of the Lone Star State believe a basketball is really a football that has been over-inflated.
The NCAA should be playing this Final Four in a basketball-crazy state like Indiana or Kansas, where the game is played not in a stadium, not in an arena but in a fieldhouse or gymnasium.
Yeah, I know what you are going to say. When they play the Men’s Final Four in the NCAA’s home city of Indianapolis, it’s played in a domed football stadium. At least the money-loving college sports administrators who have succeeded in making the term student-athlete an oxymoron scheduled this year’s Women’s Final Four for the Conseco Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers’ home that is an homage to Indiana’s basketball history (the state has nine of the 10 largest high school gymnasiums or fieldhouses in America, after all).
Which is why I’m cheering, begging, praying that the Butler Bulldogs win this year’s national championship. They could have won it last year at Lucas Oil Stadium, which is 3 miles south of the Butler campus. The Bulldogs came within a 3-point half-court heave by Gordon Hayward that went off the backboard and then the rim after the buzzer, a miss calculated at three inches, of beating Duke, which won the title 61-59.
Hayward left early for the NBA but Butler head coach Brad Stevens has several members of the 2009-10 team on his bench, led by senior Matt Howard, a real-life student-athlete who has been the unsung Most Valuable Player of this tournament. Howard grew up shooting basketballs with his 9 other siblings in the driveway of the family’s home in Connersville.
Butler plays its home games in the 10,000-seat Tony Hinkle Memorial Fieldhouse on campus. Hinkle coached basketball, baseball and football at the Indianapolis school for more than half a century, and among the players he coached were Marv Wood and Bobby Plump. Don’t know them? Wood coached the basketball team at Milan High School, then the smallest school in Indiana with 161 students in grades 9-12, and Plump was its star when the Indians reached the semifinals in 1953 and then won it all in 1954.
“The Miracle of Milan” they called it. You know it better as the movie “Hoosiers” which celebrated Indiana’s basketball history. Actor Gene Hackman played Norman Dale, the basketball coach of Hickory High who was loosely based on Wood. The character Jimmy Chitwood, portrayed by Maris Valainis, was drawn from the quiet marksman Plump.
One of the great lines written by screenwriter Angelo Pizzo was uttered by backup guard Merle Webb to his teammates just before the championship game, which was filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”
Last year, Butler played that role to the max, beating Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State before losing to the Blue Devils. This year, the Bulldogs survived Old Dominion and then knocked off Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida to touch down in Houston.
But now, the experts want you to believe that Butler has lost its slipper to Virginia Commonwealth, the Richmond, Va.-based mid-major it will play in Saturday’s first semifinal at 6:09 ET. They argue that the Rams are this year’s Cinderella story. Coached by Shaka Smart, who makes the child-faced, be-speckled Stevens appear to be a card-carrying member of AARP, the Rams had to win a play-in game from Southern California and then eliminate Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and finally top-seeded Kansas to get to Houston.
And the same experts want you to believe that whichever team wins that semifinal will not beat seven-time champion Kentucky or two-time champion Connecticut, the other semifinal combatants, on Monday night for the national title. Their respective coaches, John Calipari and Jim Calhoun, are veteran chalkboard strategists whose programs have been under the NCAA forensic microscope in recent years.
If justice is served, the Kentucky-Connecticut winner will turn into a pumpkin just before midnight Texas time, just about when the slipper is returned to its rightful owners – a bunch of over-achieving kids from the Hoosier State.
Let’s hope Butler wins it for all the common men like Tony Hinkle, Marvin Wood and Brad Stevens who dedicate much of their adult lives to the youngsters they coach and the game they love.