Monday, April 5, 2010

On the Curious Perception of Tonight's Game

OK, let me just try an experiment with numbers here, even though I vehemently dislike numbers. These are the RPI rankings of the teams Butler (#12 RPI) has defeated so far in the NCAA tournament:

UTEP: 38
Murray State: 57
Syracuse: 5
Kansas State: 6
Michigan State: 28

And here is the RPI rating of the teams Duke (#3 RPI) has beaten:

Ark. Pine-Bluff: 183
Cal: 20
Purdue: 16
Baylor: 9
West Virginia: 4

Now, given those numbers, Duke's run is certainly impressive. But Butler's is equally impressive. both teams defeated two teams ranked in the top ten in the RPI. Both teams defeated essentially interchangeable Big Ten squads crippled by the lost of one of their best players. Duke had that early victory over California, but also had the benefit of a first-round game against one of the lowest-seeded teams in the field. Also, Butler is playing this game at home, hasn't lost a game since Dec. 22; its worst loss of the season was to No. 62 Minnesota. Duke's worst loss of the season was to No. 98 North Carolina State.

All of which brings me to my point, which is that it would seem, at least to me, that these two teams are essentially evenly matched. And yet the point spread is seven, and one of the most reputable basketball columnists in the country, Pat Forde, is comparing this to Villanova-Georgetown and N.C. State-Houston. Is it merely because of the programs' histories? Is it because there is a large contingent of Americans who would prefer to set up Duke for an "epic" defeat? Is it because Butler's best player (and their coach) look like refugees from the Apple Dumpling Gang? Because otherwise, there really is no explanation for this.

Butler can win this game. And if they do win this game, it will certainly alter the perception of the "mid-major," and it could impact college basketball in lasting ways. But the victory itself would not be much of an upset at all.

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