The Myth of the Little Guys

As a lover of sporting fairness, and therefore a foe of any school associated with the odious and vile Bowl Championship Series (BCS), I am, of course, thrilled that the Horizon League’s Butler Bulldogs will be taking on the Duke Blue Devils for the national basketball championship tomorrow night. Go Butler! Go Fairness!

It’s interesting to watch how the press is covering this game, though, as some sort of David and Goliath joust, with Butler playing the role of the plucky little college taking on vast and mighty Duke, one of the nation’s perennial giant basketball powers. But there’s really not much of a mismatch between the schools when it comes to their sizes: Butler’s got about 4,500 undergraduates, and Duke has about 6,400. So in terms of the relative sizes of the institutions, this is more of a David vs. David’s slightly bigger (but much richer) neighbor down the road.

The sports press did the same thing earlier in this tournament when they portrayed Cornell (~14,000 undergraduates) as the feisty little guys against giant Kentucky (~19,000 undergraduates). So, clearly, the concept of “the little guys” in Division I college basketball has little or nothing to do with enrollment, and more with name recognition. Consider these two sets of hypothetical Final Fours, with the teams’ conference affiliations listed after their names:

Set One:
Wake Forest (ACC)
Duke (ACC)
Providence (Big East)
Notre Dame (Big East)

Set Two:
Central Florida (Conference USA)
Kent State (MAC)
Boston University (America East)
Long Beach State (Big West)

The media would have a field day with Set Two, touting it as an all-David final four, except for the fact that the average undergraduate enrollment of those four obscure basketball schools is about 40,350, while the average undergraduate enrollment in Set One (featuring past and/or likely future basketball powers) is about 5,750. So, clearly, enrollment has virtually nothing to do with success on the college basketball court.

Instead, it’s all about marketing and recruiting, and those things, in turn, are all about cash. Which the Big Six conferences have in abundance, in part because of their unfair, should-be-illegal, totally cheating, collusive BCS deal that underwrites so many of their other sports programs, and gives them a level of marketing clout that schools outside their evil cabal can never hope to match, unless and until the playing field is leveled again with the abolition of the BCS. So Butler vs Duke isn’t so much David vs Goliath as it is David vs Gordon Gekko.

Since the BCS was established in 1998, only four non-BCS schools have made it to the Final Four: Utah lost in the final in 1998, George Mason lost in the semifinals in 2006, Memphis lost in the final in 2008 (though their season has since been voided for academic violations, as tends to happen when you hire John Calipari), and this year Butler is in the final. Prior to the BCS, however, such non-Big Six teams in the Final Four were much more common, with teams like Massachusetts (another Calipari casualty), Cincinnati, Marquette, Rutgers and Louisville (all in their pre-Big East days), UNLV (who actually won the whole shooting match in 1990, without that being considered odd at the time), Houston, Memphis State, Indiana State, Penn, Charlotte, Western Kentucky, Jacksonville, New Mexico State, Drake and St. Bonaventure all having made it to the Final Four (several of them multiple times) between 1968 and 1997.

So size doesn’t matter when it comes to college basketball. Money matters. And the Big Six use their unfair financial deals to tip the scales their way, creating extraordinary disadvantages for the 280 or so other Division I teams who have to compete against them. So let’s hear it for Butler . . . not because they are small, but because they’re poor (in relative terms), and watching them knocking out a succession of economic basketball superpowers, despite the latter’s ill-gotten gains, is simply thrilling, and what sports should be all about.

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