Mark Story

Mark Story: Kentucky's mid-majors say, 'Why not us?'

The Butler didn't do it.

Yet on the Tuesday morning after regal Duke's two-point survival over the small school from Indianapolis in the NCAA finals, the e-mail box of Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall was an active place.

"I've been getting e-mails from my friends. They are saying that could be you next year," Tyndall said. "Whether that's realistic or not, I think what Butler did changes expectations for a lot of schools."

If Butler didn't quite win it all for all the little schools that have never had the chance, the Bulldogs of Coach Brad Stevens, Lexington product Shelvin Mack and Co. did well enough to plant dreams with schools far removed from college basketball's major leagues.

"After what Butler did, I absolutely think that ADs, conference commissioners and fans have a different view of what the possibilities are at a whole lot of schools," said Eastern Kentucky Coach Jeff Neubauer.

The history books will record Duke as the 2010 NCAA champion. But the Big Dance of '10 should be remembered as the tournament in which the so-called mid-majors — schools from outside the Big Six (BCS football) conferences — stood taller than Chicago's Willis Tower.

In its march to the national finals, Butler of the Horizon League beat a No. 1 seed (Syracuse), a No. 2 (Kansas State) and the team (Michigan State) led by perhaps the best NCAA Tournament coach of all, Tom Izzo.

Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley felled the tourney's No. 1 overall seed Kansas. St. Mary's of the West Coast Conference dropped a No. 2 seed (Villanova) from the Big East. Cornell (Ivy League) beat Wisconsin (Big Ten). All three upsets came on the road to the Sweet 16.

Meanwhile, Murray State (OVC) dumped Vanderbilt of the SEC; Ohio University (Mid-American) stunned Big East titan Georgetown; Old Dominion (Colonial Athletic) eliminated Notre Dame.

The question is whether this year's clear swing toward college basketball parity was a one-year phenomenon or part of an enduring trend.

"It's not just this year," said Morehead's Tyndall. "George Mason started it the year (2006) they went to the Final Four. With the way college basketball is now, with so many top players at the big schools turning pro (early), there is more of an opportunity for the so-called mid-major school to break through."

Says Eastern's Neubauer: "If you can find three-, four-year players in recruiting that you think can get better, then they play together and play together and play together, you can build a team that can overcome inexperienced talent (at the larger schools) in some cases."

Myself, I wonder if we haven't gotten a little too pre-occupied with labeling schools, especially in basketball. In hoops, unlike football, success is not nearly as tied to numbers.

The three marquee "mid-majors" — Gonzaga, Xavier and now Butler — are far better basketball jobs than say, Auburn, Oregon State and Northwestern from the Big Six.

Which is not to say the serfs have taken control of the manor. The past three national champions are Duke, North Carolina and Kansas. You don't get much more aristocratic than that. Big budgets, big arenas and big presences on ESPN are always going to produce big advantages in the world of college hoops.

Still, unless the NBA, the NBA players' union, the pro basketball agents and the NCAA can agree on a way to stabilize the talent pool — meaning an end to the one-and-done system — and keep players at the big schools longer, there will continue to be a significant window of opportunity for the "little guys" of college hoops.

So if you are a player at Murray State — the same Murray State that led Butler in the 2010 NCAA tourney's second round inside the game's final two minutes before falling by two — you had to watch the Bulldogs giving lordly Duke all it could handle Monday night and think, why not us?

"That's true," said Murray Coach Billy Kennedy. "Our guys, they were really frustrated when we got home (from the NCAAs) and we watched the tape of the Butler game. They could see we had the opportunity to win and we didn't get it done."

If you are a player at Morehead State — the same Morehead that whipped Murray during the final week of the regular season — you had to watch the Butler team that Murray State could (should?) have beaten in the NCAA's second round giving lordly Duke all it could handle Monday night and think, why not us?

"Absolutely," says Tyndall, "I think our guys do look at just that and say why can't we do that?"

Spreading that feeling all around the college basketball landscape — that is what the Butler did do Monday night.

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