Tonight, Butler can show that they belong among the elite of college basketball, and not just for one night.
If Butler wins the title over the University of Connecticut, it's perfect fair to ask: can they become a regional power.
The model they have to follow is the Duke model.
Duke is a small private school located in the shadow of other major schools who have had NCAA success (North Carolina and NC State). It's safe to say that the recruiting has never been easy.
It's not totally fair to credit Mike Krzyzewski with single handedly building the Duke program. Duke had been to the tournament 7 times since 1960, finishing as national runner-up twice, making four Final Fours, and six Elite Eights. Still, it has only been since his arrival that Duke has become an unquestioned national power. He came to Duke at age 33. Since then, he's taken Duke to 11 Final Fours and 4 National Championships. One coach has taken Duke to heights that no one could have imagined.
Is Brad Stevens that man for Butler? Could he be the next Krzyzewski?
Consider that Butler's success in the NCAAs has been building for some time. Butler has qualified for the tournament 10 times in the last 15 years. They've qualified for 4 Sweet Sixteens, and now two National Championship Games. Butler has shown that the success the last two years isn't built on one fluke recruit or even one special class of players. Rather, it's built on a system and a philosophy of team play and defense that has created a culture of success.
Duke has an undergrad enrollment of 6,500. Butler has an undergrad enrollment of 4,500. While Duke has nearly double that in post-graduate students, they face similar undergrad numbers, academic standards, and recruiting disadvantages. Perhaps the only advantage they have over Butler is conference affiliation. The ACC is a major conference, and that gives Duke the 'perception advantage' if they have a less than top-shelf year. Duke doesn't have to win the ACC, much less the conference tournament, to ensure an NCAA bid.
The Horizon League is a fine group of teams, but does not carry the profile of the ACC. Most seasons, Butler will find themselves on the bubble by reputation alone. A move like Xavier made to the Atlantic-10, a higher profile conference, could be the final step for Butler to become a Mid-Western version of the Blue Devils. Duke wasn't always hated and wasn't always a power. The whole country was pulling for Duke to stop UNLV in 1991 on their way to their first championship.
After all, Duke was a small school with high academic standards and no recruiting scandals. UNLV had a shady coach and a bad reputation and already had won a National Championship. Ironically, Duke took the next step into basketball royalty in Indianapolis. At the time, they were hailed as everything that was right with college basketball. It wasn't until the next year when Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner started to grate on the nerves of America.
Could we ever see the day when America got sick of Butler, the small, smug private school who beats up on the big boys? Will Butler ever ascend from being every Hoosier's 'second favorite team' to the point where the IU, Purdue, and Notre Dame fans loathe the Bulldogs for delivering one too many beatings?
Will we some day talk about Brad Stevens the way we talk about Mike Krzyzewski?
It could all begin with a win tonight.
Maybe it already has.