Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Life as a mid-major

By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

They are called "mid-majors," apparently because "floor mats" was already taken.

Or because the college presidents in charge at those schools understand that alumni would not open their wallets for a basketball program that year after year is described as undermanned or overmatched.

But that's the reality that Butler and many other schools face at this time of year. Usually, they wrangle invitations to the NCAA tournament as champions of second-tier conferences - hence the "mid-major" tag - and then they're supposed to clear out when the time comes to divvy up the serious spoils.

"On paper, people think we're nothing," Butler's Joel Cornette said Sunday, remembering the buildup before the 12th-seeded Bulldogs tipped off against No. 4 Louisville. "We watched TV and could barely even tell we were going to play."

There are a dozen reasons why, beginning with the high-profile coach on the opposing sideline, Rick Pitino, and a talent deficit starting with Cardinals star Reece Gaines and extending all the way to the end of the Louisville bench. But as the Bulldogs' 79-71 victory proved, that doesn't count for as much as it once did.

The truth is that the best basketball-playing seniors in the land are currently putting in their third season as pros. The same is true, essentially, about the best juniors, sophomores, freshmen and any high schooler with half as much game as LeBron James. Comb the NBA's draft board from the past few seasons, then imagine how much wider the gap between the mid-majors and the top few teams in the big conferences would be if those kids were still in the NCAA mix.

Because they aren't, the number of real powerhouses is down to a handful, and schools such as Butler get to hang around a little longer and talk a little louder than they used to. And being the only double-digit seed besides No. 10 Auburn left in the round of 16 has proved to be intoxicating stuff, indeed.

"It's not our goal just to get to the Sweet 16," Darnell Archey said. "Our goal all along has been to be national champions. We're thrilled and excited, but we're not satisfied."

Come Friday, Oklahoma figures to have something to say about that. The best games so far have been supposed mismatches on the order of Butler-Louisville - see Arizona's escape from Gonzaga - but everything suggests it's going to get harder from here on out.

Butler slipped away from No. 5 Mississippi State in round one, the clear exception to the rule. At the Indianapolis subregional just down the road from the Bulldogs' classic gym, four of their brethren - Holy Cross, Southern Illinois, Western Kentucky and Wisconsin-Milwaukee - were beaten by Marquette, Missouri, Illinois and Notre Dame by a total of 11 points. It might be that coach Todd Lickliter was the only one in Butler colors who appreciated how lucky they were to draw the longer straw twice in a row.

"The greatest thing is we get to stay together," he said. "I can't tell you how much fun it is to just be around these guys, to watch them prepare and compete. I just want to prolong this as long as possible."

All sorts of improbable pieces fell in place to help Butler get this far. The talent drain of the last decade never hit the Bulldogs because they don't draw many stars to begin with. Six of this year's players are seniors, including Sunday's hero, Archey. And Lickliter, who has exactly as many tournament appearances as Pitino does national championships (one), is the third coach they've played for.

If the program has a star, it's Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Butler gym was used to film the ultimate underdog movie, "Hoosiers," and Lickliter understands its pull as a recruiting tool. It is short on amenities, but long on inspiration.

"When you walk in, there's a feeling to this place. Especially for me," Lickliter, who played for his father at nearby North Central High, said recently. "I grew up here and played high school basketball here. I would say there's a tremendous feeling about it, and this team upholds that as well as any team you could ask to uphold it."

Whether it was Archey on the greatest 3-point tear of his life, or Duane Lightfoot's 14 points off the bench, or even reserve Rob Walls' exchange of sneakers with Cornette after the senior center soaked his by crashing into some coolers behind the bench in pursuit of a loose ball, the Bulldogs have become a team.

If nothing else, Butler's kids understand the notion of playing together. It's the only real advantage they've got.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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