INDIANAPOLIS — Gonzaga served as the model program for college basketball’s non-power conference schools for more than a decade.
Butler took that blueprint, revised it and came up with even better results.
Today, college basketball fans will finally get to see America’s two biggest little schools play each other at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse with all the trimmings: A prime-time tip and a national audience on ESPN.
“You talk about the Final Four, bucket list. You talk about Maui (Invitational), bucket list, Preseason NIT, bucket list,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “So when (College) GameDay comes to town, you play when they tell you to play.”
The showcase also happens to pit two of America’s best teams, No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 13 Butler, and both are on a roll.
Two-time national runner-up Butler (15-2, 3-0 Atlantic 10) has won 12 straight since losing to Illinois in Maui two months ago. It has already upset then-No. 1 Indiana and then-No. 9 North Carolina, as well as beat three traditional A-10 front-runners in St. Joseph’s, Dayton and Richmond. It has beaten teams from the ACC (North Carolina), Big East (Marquette) SEC (Vanderbilt) and two Big Ten schools (Indiana and Northwestern), none of them at Hinkle.
A win this weekend would make this the first Butler team to beat three top 10 teams in one season.
One thing fans won’t see is Butler’s top scorer, Rotnei Clarke, who will miss his second straight game with a severely sprained neck. It didn’t bother them in Wednesday’s 62-47 win over Richmond, and the Bulldogs insist they won’t do anything different tonight, either.
“It’s just our next game,” said 7-foot center Andrew Smith, the only active college player to start in two national championship games. “They’re a great team, but we’ll play just as hard as we always do.”
The Zags, meanwhile, are making a cross-country journey less than 48 hours after playing at Portland.
Gonzaga (17-1, 4-0 West Coast Conference) has won eight straight, is off to the best start in school history and has its own laundry list of big-time wins. The Zags have beaten Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia of the Big 12, Clemson of the ACC and Washington State of the Pac-12. Like Butler, Gonzaga’s only loss came to Illinois.
Unlike Butler, the Zags have never reached a Final Four and haven’t played in a regional final since 1999.
Maybe that will change in 2013. These Zags are big, strong and deep as Portland found out when 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk, the WCC’s top scorer, spent 14 minutes of the first half on the bench because of foul trouble. Gonzaga still won 71-49.
“They have the No. 1 frontcourt in the country,” Portland coach Eric Reveno said after the game. “We forced them to go to Plan B, and their Plan B is almost as good as Plan A.”
What Butler and Gonzaga have done goes far beyond their campuses.
Both have consistently brought in players who fit their systems rather than Top 100 recruits, and they manage to keep those guys around campus long enough to develop their talent. And they did this while scheduling the big boys of college basketball.
Other non-BCS conference programs took the cue and wound up with similar results.
A glance at this week’s Top 25 shows Creighton at No. 12, San Diego State at No. 15, New Mexico at No. 19 and Virginia Commonwealth at No. 22. Another Missouri Valley Conference school, Wichita State, was ranked last week.
George Mason, VCU and Butler have all made Final Four appearances in the past decade. Ohio University of the Mid-American Conference came within a whisker of upsetting North Carolina and going to the regional final last season.
Gonzaga won last year’s meeting with Butler 71-55, and Stevens did have some second thoughts about keeping the second straight meeting on the schedule.
“We scheduled this before we were in the Atlantic 10 and when I looked at the schedule in September, I thought, ‘I’m an idiot,”’ Stevens said. “I should have scaled it back.”
He didn’t, and college basketball fans might get to see one of the best games all season.
“We have unbelievable respect for Gonzaga and it has been that way for a long time,” Stevens said. “But we’re going to do what we do. We have half a season still ahead and we have to do what we do.”