Butler is good for the Horizon League.
There I said it. Something that fans from Milwaukee to Green Bay to Chicago and Detroit don't want to admit. Those guys in Indianapolis that play in the old house of Hoosiers are good for the league.
It's not just that Butler's trip to the Sweet 16 is placing them amongst the elite teams in college basketball this season. The Bulldogs have been close to that level, if not at it, for a few seasons now. They haven't won fewer than 26 games in any of the past four seasons. They also reached the Sweet 16 in 2007, just in case anyone forgot.
That success though has brought some backlash from the rest of the Horizon League. Fans on message boards and Twitter are jealous of the Bulldogs. They're jealous of the league tournament, which is "rigged" to get the higher seed into the NCAA Tournament. They're jealous of the fact that the Horizon League's site splashes pretty Butler graphics and stories across it.
Fans at Green Bay, Milwaukee and Wright State feel like second-class citizens in a league that they are in the upper tier. And if they're frustrated, how must the fans from Loyola, Youngstown State and UIC feel?
The truth is Butler has made a commitment to winning. The Bulldogs spend
enough to be competitive and as their national profile has risen so has
their talent level. Butler now doesn't get by just on the $1.8 million
or so the school pumps into men's basketball, it developed a name (and
Indianapolis doesn't hurt) to draw recruits.
And the team keeps getting better. They could've taken a step back when
Todd Lickliter decided to leave for Iowa, but instead the Bulldogs
promoted a guy no one had ever heard of, Brad Stevens, to the head
position. Now he's one of the top names in coaching. Butler found their
guy and it worked.
Some Horizon League schools spend as much as the Bulldogs on creating a
competitive basketball team. The most recent numbers I can find say that
Milwaukee and Wright State have both made the commitment to spend money
in order to be competitive.
And those teams, and maybe some others are going to improve. Want
evidence why? Check out the West Coast Conference. When Gonzaga became a
national heavyweight the league responded in kind. Now it's St. Mary's
and not the Bulldogs from the West Coast that are in the Sweet 16. (Want
more evidence? Look at how Portland's program is beginning to grow as
What about the Horizon League? What about Loyola and UIC?
These two schools have seemingly have been left behind lately. UIC, with
one of the largest enrollments in the conference, hasn't been to the
NCAA Tournament since 2004 and hasn't won at least 20 games since then
either. This past season apathy set in as the Flames struggled to come
up with 8 wins. There is talent coming in, but I wonder if we're headed
towards another lame-duck coaching situation at the Pavilion if UIC
can't find a way to pull out some wins early in 2010.
Jimmy Collins has been the head coach since 1996. And while he's the
second longest tenured coach in the Horizon League, behind Valparaiso's
Homer Drew, he's worn out his welcome amongst Flames fans. By the end of
last season Collins seemed worn out. The losing had taken its toll. Is
he ready to go through another season like that?
At Loyola the NCAA Tournament memories are even further gone. The
Ramblers haven't been to the Dance since 1985. Two consecutive 14-win
seasons haven't done anything to improve the profile of the school. The
talent level appears to be improving in Rogers Park. Walt Gibler, Ben
Averkamp and Courtney Stanley offer hope for the future. Incoming
recruit Flavien Davis seems to be highly regarded as well. But how long
will the Loyola faithful wait for Jim Whitesell to put a competitive
team on the floor? As the improvements to the Gentile Center begin,
shouldn't the team be improving with it?
It seems that Butler is forcing the Horizon League to a crossroads. Do
you want to be competitive year-in and year-out? Or do you want to get
left in the dust of the team from Indianapolis? Someone will rise to the
occasion. Will it be Loyola or UIC? Time will tell.