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"Underdog" Butler could change sports history

HOUSTON - There is a longstanding theory in college basketball, backed by years and years of evidence, that you can do a lot of nice things from a school like Butler and a league like the Horizon, but you cannot win it all.

Reach the Sweet 16?


Make the Final Four?

That can clearly happen, too.

But no school like Butler or one from a league like the Horizon has won a championship in the modern era, and it's been more than two decades since a program operating without the advantages provided by the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-10 or SEC has cut nets on a Monday night in April. Consequently, most of us decided at some point that it's simply not possible anymore, that the gap between the haves and have-nots is too wide, that magical runs are fun to watch but they will always come up short. And yet for the second straight year, a private school based in Indianapolis with a little more than 4,000 students has an opportunity to smash that theory to pieces and take it off the table, forever and always. The only thing between Butler and immortality now is Connecticut -- a traditional power from a power conference coached by a Hall of Famer named Jim Calhoun and led by a dynamic guard named Kemba Walker.

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"There are a lot of reasons to say you can't, but it's a lot more fun to say you can," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "It's a lot more fun to believe."

Brad Stevens is a lot like the rest of us.

He loves the underdog story.

He cheers for Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed, for the Indians in Major League, for John McClane at Nakatomi Plaza. He'll turn on the Masters next weekend and hope to spend Sunday watching an unknown challenge for a green jacket. He watches football every season and yells for the Boise States and TCUs.

"You bet," Stevens answered when I asked him to confirm his rooting allegiances. "I have to say, I'm one of the guys screaming at the TV when TCU doesn't get a spot to play for the national championship."

So it's not a stretch to suggest Stevens would be pulling for Butler in Monday night's national championship game even if he were going to be somewhere other than standing on the raised court here at Reliant Stadium coaching the Bulldogs. What's interesting is that practically everybody with similar tastes -- TCU fans, Boise State fans, pretty much everybody except Connecticut fans -- will be pulling for Butler, too, because the Bulldogs represent something much larger than themselves. Similar to how Tiger Woods showed young African-Americans that anything is possible on a golf course, and how Anthony Robles showed handicap men that anything is possible on a wrestling mat, Butler is 40 minutes away from showing small schools with small budgets that anything is possible in college athletics, and it doesn't matter if that's not really the goal.

"I don't know if it's selfish or not, but we want to do this for ourselves," Butler forward Matt Howard said. "We don't look at this as doing it for everyone else or feeling like we need to disable some theory. It's about this team and about us believing that we can accomplish the next task at hand."

Is it simpler to win big with McDonald's All-Americans and massive budgets?

Of course.

But George Mason gave tiny programs with unheralded recruits a reason to think Final Fours are realistic in 2006. Butler took it a step further with an appearance in the title game last year. Now the Bulldogs can break the glass ceiling for good with a win over Connecticut. Some people, of course, would still discount small schools from non-BCS leagues, still claim Boise State could never win the SEC in football, still claim VCU could never win the ACC in basketball. But for the first time in a long time, we would be able to counter with Exhibit A, and nobody would be able to intelligently counter argue it.

"We work hard every day," Butler guard Shelvin Mack said. "I think me and my teammates deserve it."

They're also capable of getting it.

Which is why this title game is bigger than most.

Which is why this title game matters more than usual.

It's not the Ohio State-Kansas matchup most projected three weeks ago, and it's not a game full of lottery picks and future NBA MVPs. But it is a game that could reshape the way people view college athletics and remove the word "can't" from our vocabulary forever. As Howard pointed out, the Butler players are too focused on the little things to recognize the big ones; they're not approaching tipoff with this in mind. But the nation, well, the nation most certainly is -- for on Monday, almost everywhere outside of New England, the underdog Bulldogs are America's team, a group of mostly overlooked prospects from a mostly discounted league on the verge of turning traditional logic completely upside down.

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