Cinderella stories VCU, Butler give hope for non-BCS programs
Akron coach Keith Dambrot always told assistant Shaka Smart it was only a matter of time before another college basketball team from a non-power conference won a national championship.
Marquette was the last school fitting that description to be crowned national champion, in 1977 — 11 years after Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) upset legendary coach Adolph Rupp's Kentucky squad in 1966. Loyola (Chicago) won the title in 1963.
“Keith used to say, ‘One of the little guys is going to win the whole thing.' I always thought, ‘You're out of your mind,' ” said Smart, now the coach at VCU.
“A couple of years after he started saying that, George Mason went to the Final Four (in 2006),” Smart added. “Then, of course, Butler has done what it's done (advancing to the Final Four in 2010 and '11) and we were able to make it in 2011.”
Butler and VCU are first-year members in the Atlantic 10, which hasn't been represented at the Final Four since Massachusetts in 1996.
Butler defeated Indiana, 88-86, in overtime in December for the school's first win over a No. 1 team. VCU routed Butler, 84-52, two weeks ago. Fellow Atlantic 10 member Saint Louis, currently ranked No. 16, was 3-0 against VCU and Butler during the regular season.
“Is this going to be the year? It's certainly possible,” said Smart, whose team has been ranked in the Top 25 all season.
All roads to the Final Four in Atlanta lead through Spokane, Wash., home of top-ranked Gonzaga.
Members of the West Coast Conference, the Zags are the first school not belonging to a power conference to enter the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 since Larry Bird's undefeated Indiana State team in 1979.
Indiana State lost to Michigan State in the national championship game 34 years ago. Can Gonzaga — appearing in its 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament under coach Mark Few — accomplish what Indiana State couldn't?
“They're really good,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose Mountaineers lost, 84-50, at Gonzaga on Nov. 12. “They've got great depth. They obviously can score the ball. If you can score the ball, you've got a chance.”
“How many teams in the country have a 7-foot center that can step out and knock down threes, with tremendous footwork, an excellent passer, runs the floor and go out and guard ball screens?” ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said about Gonzaga junior Kelly Olynyk, who averages 17.3 points and 7.0 rebounds and ranks third in the country in field-goal percentage (65.5). “Alongside him they have a four-year starter who has over 2,000 points (senior forward Elias Harris). They have four legitimate frontcourt players and a talented backcourt.”
Gonzaga is 5-0 against Big 12 opponents this season, including blowout wins against No. 11 Kansas State and No. 14 Oklahoma State. The Zags also defeated teams from the ACC (Clemson) and Pac-12 (Washington State).
“We made a conscious decision to take some chances in scheduling bigger names knowing that we could get beat,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “But you can't beat a bigger name unless you play them. We had a mindset of recruiting student-athletes being recruited by big-name schools until the kid tells us no. We made decisions saying how we want to think about ourselves, thus hopefully change how others think about us.”
“Gonzaga, Butler and VCU are not marquee schools, but don't kid yourself,” said NBA Hall of Famer and West Virginia great Jerry West, an executive with the Golden State Warriors. “Those coaches get the kids they can work with for four years and mold them into a cohesive unit. For one of those schools to win, it wouldn't shock me. But I think the odds are against it.”
Similar odds worked against Butler in 2010.
Butler's Gordon Hayward barely missed a halfcourt shot at the buzzer that would have upset favored Duke in the national championship game. In 2011, Butler defeated VCU in the national semifinals before losing to Connecticut in the title game.
Butler missed the NCAA Tournament last year.
“Three non-BCS schools — two times with us, once with VCU — have been in the Final Four in the last three years,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens. “There's five or six (Atlantic 10) teams as good as the team I coached two years ago that went to the championship game. But to say this is going to be the year, it all depends on those 40-minute games.”