HOUSTON – College basketball's biggest party was once an exclusive affair, such a stretch for small schools there might as well have been "No Mid-Majors Allowed" signs plastered on the locker room doors at the Final Four.
Now, thanks to Butler, everybody thinks they've got a shot. And a blueprint for how to do it.
Butler has a mere 4,500 students, plays in an arena where a large popcorn counts as a luxury box and belongs to the Horizon League, which sounds more like a nonprofit group than a power conference. Yet the Bulldogs (28-9) will play in their second straight national title game Monday night, hoping to beat Connecticut (31-9) and erase the heartbreak of last April, when they came within a bounce of winning it all.
"I've thrown the 'mid-major' term out," said Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director who chaired the selection committee for this year's NCAA tournament. "There's a lot of great basketball going on in this country, and kids are making choices to go to different schools. When you have good leadership and a good commitment to building your basketball program, you ... can get it done in basketball.
"The reality is, one day, and it may be (Monday), there's going to be one of those teams titled 'mid-majors' that's going to emerge and win a national championship."
Like other "mid-majors," Butler has benefited from college basketball's shifting landscape. Reductions in the number of scholarships have forced kids who once would have been role players at Duke, Kansas or UCLA to look elsewhere. The NBA's prohibition on preps-to-pros can lead to instability at elite schools, with blue-chippers staying a year, maybe two, before bolting. The proliferation of TV channels means players and coaches don't have to be in the spotlight to get exposure.
But it is "The Butler Way," five principles that guide the team on and off the court, that makes the Bulldogs stand tall among the little guys.
Passed down by Butler coach Tony Hinkle, the tenets now are engraved on a stone outside the venerable fieldhouse named for him. But they might as well be tattooed on the players' foreheads: Passion. Unity. Servanthood. Humility. Thankfulness.
In other words, team before all.
"One of the things I really liked about Butler is the way they approach things — the team's selfless attitude, always taking accountability for your actions," senior Matt Howard said. "Those are really core values that govern a good team. That's something that we try to live by every day."
Sure, the Bulldogs have had standout players such as Gordon Hayward, an NBA lottery pick last year. But anyone who puts on a Butler uniform has to be willing to sacrifice personal goals for the team's gain.
Shelvin Mack's stock is rising because of the monster offensive games he's having in the tournament, yet he also grabbed six rebounds in the win over VCU in the national semifinal. Junior Ronald Nored had been a fixture in the starting lineup since he got to Butler, yet he has willingly come off the bench in all but two of the last 14 games because coach Brad Stevens felt Chase Stigall was a better fit.
"It's not rocket science," Stevens said. "The key in any endeavor is adhering to those standards and trying to live up those standards, not trying to worry about anything else. It's hard to do and easy to talk about."
But the Butler players buy in because they see the results.
The Bulldogs have made five straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, developing a reputation as one of the toughest outs in the bracket. They've won at least one game four of the last five years, getting to the regional semifinals or better three times. They are as fundamentally sound as they come, and their defense is as relentless as it is oppressive.
During its current 14-game winning streak, Butler is holding opponents to 59.8 points. Only two — Pittsburgh and Florida — have managed to crack the 70-point barrier.
"One thing that all small schools have is kids that buy into the program and play hard all the time," Nored said. "We've done a great job of just playing our butts off. That's what you have to do, and I think you really have to be about each other. There can be no selfishness going on because that's a good way to get exposed."
Butler is never going to have a BCS-school budget, but president Bobby Fong and athletic director Barry Collier have been willing to put up the cash necessary to keep the Bulldogs a first-class program. Stevens is the hottest thing in coaching these days, and Collier was quick to give him a new, 12-year deal after last year's national title game that likely included a raise from the $750,000 Stevens had been making. Butler has plans for a $25 million renovation of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
"The school is committed to academics and their basketball program," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "Some of the people who think that their coach should do the same need to look to itself: Are you as committed as Butler is?"
Although Stevens said his phone isn't blowing up with other mid-major coaches asking for the secrets to Butler's success, its influence can already be seen.
Butler's opponent in the Final Four was none other than VCU, another mid-major led by a smart, talented young coach who persuaded his players they could do pretty much anything as long as they stuck together.
Deemed unworthy of being in the tournament by just about everyone after losing five of their last eight games, the Rams knocked off schools from the Pac-10 (Southern California), the Big East (Georgetown), the Big Ten (Purdue) and the ACC (Florida State) before manhandling the Big 12's top-seeded Kansas to earn its first trip to the Final Four.
That VCU lost to Butler takes nothing away from what the team accomplished. Or diminishes what it might do in the future.
"Of course it's not a once-in-a-lifetime run. We're going to try to do this every year," coach Shaka Smart said. "Are we capable of doing it again? Sure. No question. If we're capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it's certainly possible."
As more and more little guys show up to the party, the odds improve that, someday, one of them will go home with the title.
"I would have told you 10 years ago, 'No way,'" Calhoun said. "But I would tell you, yeah, there's a chance for it happening."