There are no Cinderella teams in college basketball anymore.
For little Butler University, going to the Final Four last year in its hometown of Indianapolis and battling mighty Duke for the national championship was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But nobody convinced the Bulldogs that they couldn’t do it again.
For unheralded Virginia Commonwealth University, being one of the last four schools named to this year’s 68-team tournament was supposed to be enough recognition for their fine season. But nobody convinced the Rams that they couldn’t beat the big boys.
VCU and Butler will face each other at the Final Four in Houston on Saturday. The winner plays for the national championship next Monday night. If that doesn’t convince you that the school name on the front of the uniform means less than ever in major college basketball, then nothing will. Neither VCU nor Butler comes from one of the six major conferences that has produced every national champion since 1990 (Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 10, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast). But in the past three decades, many elite players have left major conference schools early, or not gone to college at all, to enter the NBA draft. A more shallow talent pool gives a smaller college with very good players, like VCU from the Colonial Athletic Association or Butler from the Horizon League, a chance to beat anyone.
VCU, led by charismatic 33-year-old coach Shaka Smart, really did outplay USC, Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State before dismissing Kansas (President Obama’s pick to win it all) in Sunday’s Southwest Region final. VCU’s best player, forward Jamie Skeen, really was better than any Kansas player. Butler, coached by 34-year-old Brad Stevens, really is back in the Final Four despite losing versatile forward Gordon Hayward, its best all-around player in 2010, to the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Butler guard Shelvin Mack and forward Matt Howard really are as good at their position as any player in the country.
Nobody should be shocked to see VCU and Butler join Connecticut and Kentucky in the Final Four. It wouldn’t be a fluke or a miracle if Butler or VCU wins the national championship. So it’s time to retire the term “Cinderella.” It no longer fits. In college basketball today, any team good enough to qualify for the tournament is good enough to win it.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
(Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)