Butler University’s men’s basketball team is the overwhelming sentimental favorite against Duke in tonight’s NCAA championship game. It has a longest-in-the-nation, 25-game winning streak, and it could be the first team since the 1972 UCLA Bruins to win an NCAA men's basketball title in its hometown.
But that is only a part of the story for the Bulldogs – underdogs with a wonderful, if little-known pedigree.
Before there was ever an NCAA tournament, which began in 1939, Butler was crowned the AAU national champion in 1924. And in 1929, when coached by Paul D. “Tony” Hinkle, they were awarded the John J. McDevitt Trophy, a national championship designation bestowed by the Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia.
Hinkle was a veritable institution on the northern Indianapolis campus. He coached the basketball, football, and baseball teams to more than 1,000 victories during a career that spanned five decades.
In 1966, nearing the end of his time on the bench, Butler Fieldhouse was renamed Hinkle Fieldhouse in his honor. The largest basketball arena in the United States until 1950, it hosted the finals of the state high school basketball tournament for many years, including in 1954, when tiny Milan High School won the title in a story immortalized in the movie “Hoosiers.”
Butler has continued to play in this aging treasure, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Last year the school began considering remodeling the brick fieldhouse and recently announced a $10 million plan to modernize the facility while keeping its essential character.
Fundraising for the project couldn’t commence at a better time. But as good as things are now for the program, Butler for many years played in the shadows of other Indiana colleges.
Indiana's basketball tradition
Indiana University and Purdue belong to the mighty Big Ten Conference. There’s also Notre Dame in South Bend, a perennially dangerous team that has never won a national championship in basketball, but which ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak in 1974.
And don’t forget that Indiana State briefly held center stage in the state in the late 1970s, when Larry Bird took the Sycamores all the way a memorable showdown with Magic Johnson-led Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA final.
Even during the Hinkle era, the Bulldogs and their Hall of Fame Coach often shared the limelight in the old Indiana Collegiate Conference with down-state rival Evansville College (now the University of Evansville), led by another Hall of Fame coach, Arad McCutchan. The Purples Aces actually were more successful in postseason play, winning five national small-college championships even as Butler gained a reputation for upsetting Big Ten teams.
Ironically, Butler has a number of similarities to Duke. Both are private schools with strong academic reputations and strong basketball traditions. Each plays in a basketball-oriented state, uses a storied old gym (in Duke’s case, Cameron Indoor Stadium), and even share blue as their school color.
Here's the tale of the tape for tonight's final:
Number of in-state students on basketball roster
- Butler – 10
- Duke – 4
Year of university founding
- Butler – 4,512*
- Duke – 13,000
* This reportedly makes Butler the second smallest team to ever play in the NCAA championship game after Jacksonville in 1970.)
Year varsity basketball program began
- Butler – 1897
- Duke – 1906
Number of consensus All-America players ever
- Butler – 0
- Duke – 15
Annual undergraduate tuition
- Butler – $28,460
- Duke – $39,075
Percentage of basketball players who graduate
- Butler – 90 percent
- Duke – 92 percent
Number of Final Four appearances
- Butler – 1
- Duke – 15
Ross Atkin's March Madness trivia: