Andrew Murawa is the Mountain West and Pac-12 Conference correspondent and an occasional contributor.
Question: Who are the best candidates to be another Butler, George Mason or VCU?
In the five seasons since George Mason’s huge breakthrough win on the part of mid-majors everywhere, the Colonials have seen their feat matched by three other teams, with Butler even outdoing GMU by advancing to consecutive national championship games and even giving Duke everything possible in 2010, coming just a fraction of an inch away from claiming an improbable national title. But Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, who faced each other in one of last year’s national semifinals, are likely to take steps back this year. While Brad Stevens has rightly earned the reputation as a coach who gets the most out of his team, the fact that the Bulldogs are now missing Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, in addition to Gordon Hayward (who left two years ago) means that this vintage of Butler will be starting over. Sure, Ronald Nored returns for his senior season, while guys like Khyle Marshall, Andrew Smith and Chrishawn Hopkins are ready for their turns in the spotlight, but in the exceedingly unlikely event that Butler makes its third national title run, Stevens should be up for immediate sainthood, because that would qualify as a miracle. Likewise in Richmond, the Rams will be replacing four key players from last year’s run. While Bradford Burgess returns for his senior year ready to play a bigger role for VCU, there likely isn’t enough talent surrounding him to repeat last season’s remarkable exploits.
So, if Butler and VCU are out of the question, which team is possible? First, we should define the question a bit more clearly. The way I look at it, we’re not simply looking for a team outside of the Big Six conferences to fill in here, because schools like Memphis, UNLV and Louisville (when it was in Conference USA) have made Final Fours prior to GMU, and none of those were all that surprising. Likewise, if a team like Xavier or Memphis, for instance, made it to the Final Four this year, it wouldn’t exactly be a shock. Sure, it may raise an eyebrow here and there, but for all the money those schools throw at basketball and all the recruiting success those programs have, they shouldn’t be considered true mid-major programs. For the purpose of this question, we’ll use the Mid-Majority’s redline, which takes the Big Six conferences, along with the Mountain West, Conference USA, Xavier and Gonzaga and names them all major programs.