|Gonzaga was America's original "Cinderella" team, but now is a terrifying team to meet in March. (sportingnews.com)|
Gonzaga started the idea of the mid-major "Cinderella" with an Elite 8 run in 1999. Now the Zags are a consistent top-25 team that is expected to do well in March.
Butler took it a step further with consecutive NCAA Tournament title game appearances under coach Brad Stevens and is continuing to take on a beat top 25 opponents. We've already discussed how good of a coach Stevens is, as now Butler is moving away from that Cinderella title to being a fixture at the top of the game every year.
It's a tough job for a mid-major to maintain the kind of excellence it takes to become one of the big boys, with less funds and recognition. Many teams haven't been able to hold on after breaking into the limelight. Just look at Bucknell, Vermont or Hampton. We'll see if Norfolk St. or Lehigh are one-hit wonders after last season's shockers. Factors like coaching and personnel are obviously involved and if your breakout coach leaves for a bigger school, your dreams of being the next Gonzaga could end in a second.
Still, Butler will likely be the last team to make the jump in performance level and credibility, so here are a couple more schools in the running to be next in line.
VCU: The Rams hammered their way into the spotlight in 2007 with a dramatic 79-77 win over Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They only reached the tournament one more time in the next three years (2009) but then had the breakout year in 2011. VCU scrapped its way to the Final Four before losing to who else but Butler. The Rams were back in it again last year, nearly losing to Indiana (63-61) in the second round. The Rams have had the big wins to get themselves known and then made an impressive run to make the nation believers. As long as Shaka Smart is the coach, VCU has a good chance to keep this going. They probably need two or three more tournament appearances and another Sweet 16 birth — as well as some huge regular-season wins — to move into Butler range.
In The Running:
Creighton: Creighton benefits from playing in a conference (Missouri Valley) known for producing talented, mid-major basketball programs. The BlueJays have been a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament since 1999, making the tournament eight times during that span, including five seasons in a row from 1999-2003. Creighton has advanced to the second round three times since 1999, yet can't seem to find a way into the second weekend. With potential National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott leading the way, this could be the year Creighton breaks through to the Sweet 16.
Davidson: If Stephen Curry could have stayed at Davidson for more than four years, Davidson could already be in line with Butler. The Wildcats reached the NCAA Tournament each year from 2006-2008, with the climax being Curry leading the 2008 squad to the Elite 8, where it was narrowly defeated by soon-to-be national champion Kansas. Bob McKillop has rebounded from the loss of that great 2008 senior class and is looking to make a second-straight tournament appearance this year. Davidson has been able to recruit pretty well, schedules big-name opponents early in the season and plays in a fairly weak conference, so the blueprint is there for the Davidson name to grow, but the Wildcats still need to go first.
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