I can’t count the number of stories I’ve seen in the last week referring to Cinderella. It was as if Cinderella herself had become a mythological Siren – seducing college basketball’s experts, pundits, and soothsayers, alike.
As I see it here, the key is to avoid being entrapped by this metaphor - Greek or otherwise. Virginia Commonwealth and back-to-back Final Four contender Butler University are well-coached, technically solid, and deceptively tough teams. Though neither team resides in a so-called “major” conference, each acquit themselves very well against these typically taller and more athletic teams. They don’t get a lot of airtime on television and have athletic budgets that are typically much smaller than those of the major conferences, and yet they routinely do more with less – particularly at tournament time.
Butler and Virginia Commonwealth are not well known to basketball royalty like Florida and Kansas, who they respectively beat in making the NCAA tournament Final Four this past weekend. Familiarity with your opponent is a luxury in this olio of 68 teams, and the how the brackets shake out always makes for some intriguing matchups.
Aside from their overtime win against Florida, probably the hardest game Butler had all tournament was against another mid-major upstart, Old Dominion of the Colonial Athletic Association – the same conference that includes their Final Four opponent Virginia Commonwealth.
When you look at such statistics as strength of schedule (SoS) to determine who the best teams are, it would seem a clear-cut case that teams like Kansas, Ohio State, Duke, and North Carolina are far superior against teams like Butler and VCU – who are 75th and 84th respectively in Division 1.
A team like Butler, which loses to opponents like Wisconsin-Milwaukee (twice), Wright State, and Valparaiso shouldn’t be expected to beat teams like Wisconsin-Madison and Florida in successive games, right?
It just goes to show you that statistics can largely be thrown out the window during March Madness. Teams that do the little things well – such as making their foul shots and three-pointers, in addition to keeping their opponents surprised and flummoxed on defense, will always have a great shot at winning in the clutch.
Butler’s coach Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart have succeeded in taking away a lot of the inside power of their larger opponents and have also held them at bay at the perimeter. In the Butler-Wisconsin game, foul shots that had been dropping for Wisconsin all year long all of a sudden were rimming out. And when Wisconsin had scored a grand total of three points in the first 10 minutes of the second half of that Sweet Sixteen game, it was clear that Butler was having a psychological effect on their play. Regardless of whether VCU or Butler wins their April 2nd showdown, it will be a statement game that for the second year in a row, a mid-major team will play for the national title.
It’s past time to retire Cinderella’s glass slippers and give these teams the respect they’ve earned.