TOM DAVIS: Butler is a long way from being Villanova, why is that?
As Villanova rained down 3-pointer after 3-pointer after 3-pointer (just keep saying this 15 more times) on Kansas in the national semifinal Saturday, the only people more frustrated than Jayhawk fans would have been Butler fans.
In the Wildcats’ last 74 games, they have lost eight of those, but three have been to the Bulldogs.
With the Wildcats playing for their second national championship in three seasons tonight against Michigan (9 p.m., CBS), you can’t fault the Butler fans for being curious as to how close their favorite team is from reaching the level of Villanova.
When it really matters, not in January.
After all, both are smaller, private universities that compete in the Big East Conference and Butler obviously has been able to compete with the Wildcats on the court.
But the brutally honest answer to that question is not very.
There are a number of reasons for that, and I’ll touch on each, but like a lot of conundrums in athletics, you can always just answer “money” and you have a better than average chance at being correct, which is the case here.
For the young, it may be difficult to remember iconic Hinkle Fieldhouse prior to its $36 million in renovations, which were unveiled four years ago. But for the uneducated, Hinkle Fieldhouse was a dump in the 1980s and only somewhat improved with each passing decade, as the university leadership did what it financially could to make the landmark appear adequate.
Former Bulldog coach Brad Stevens spoke of the necessity for facility upgrades prior to the university joining the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2012 and those alterations became even more imperative a year later when the Bulldogs shot right through the A-10 and into the upper reaches of intercollegiate athletics in joining the Big East.
The effort and thought by the university at the time were nice, but in hindsight, not nearly enough.
In the case of Villanova, it has committed close to $80 million to basketball facility upgrades over the past 11 years, including the construction of an $18.5 million practice facility.
The Wildcats will compete in the renovated Finneran Pavilion next season after that facility has received $60 million in upgrades.
In hindsight, perhaps it would have been prudent to construct a portion of the Butler University Health and Recreation Center (built in 2006) as a basketball practice facility, but even that may not have been necessary.
Hinkle Fieldhouse has the space for a practice facility in its West Gym, but the space needs to be overhauled in order to reach its potential.
Fresh paint, better acoustics, new banners, 24-hour access for players and no one else, and good ventilation are all doable improvements that could convert the gym into a marketable training area.
The investment for success on the part of Villanova hasn’t stopped at just facilities, however. The Wildcats have a level of commitment that never ceases.
The Indianapolis Star reported on the annual men’s basketball budgets from the 2015-16 season within the Big East and Villanova ranked third with a commitment of $9.4 million annually, which dwarfs Butler (ninth in the 10-team league at $4.8 million).
As it turns out, you really do get what you pay for.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Geographic location certainly plays a significant role in the success of many things in life, basketball programs, included.
Butler is deep in the heart of one of the nation’s most talent-rich areas when it comes to basketball recruiting. However, the Bulldogs’ problem is so are a lot of other high-major programs.
Villanova doesn’t have a top 25 men’s basketball program within 245 miles of its campus, while Butler has seven such programs within a 259-mile radius.
In addition to those challenging opponents, Butler also has to compete with the likes of Louisville, Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois, and now even national semifinalist Loyola (Chicago).
Not only does Villanova not have any comparable competitors from a proximity standpoint, even if it did, as successful as the Wildcats have been of late, they would still dominate in achievement.
Contrast that with Butler, which is in a perfect storm of adversity from a geographic location, as well as an awareness standpoint.
Being a smaller and private institution, Butler will always have to fight an uphill battle in terms of interest generated, while that is not an issue for Villanova.
Yes, Hinkle Fieldhouse is often packed during league play, but as Indiana and Purdue crank out thousands upon thousands of graduates each year the awareness-gap grows larger, and this doesn’t even include the number of fans that have no connection to those state universities other than passion.
In comparison, Villanova doesn’t have a comparable basketball program fighting it for attention.
Penn State had its best season in years and couldn’t even get into the NCAA Tournament; meanwhile, Pitt went winless in the Atlantic Coast Conference and had to pay its coach (Kevin Stallings) $10 million just to leave.
The Bulldogs not only have to battle for publicity amongst fans and recruits with the behemoth state programs, but also the nationally-renowned name of Notre Dame.
Throw in Big Ten powers Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State, as well as Xavier and Cincinnati, and the monsters to the south in Louisville and Kentucky, and the odds of Butler landing an elite recruit or converting fans within close distance can be infinitesimal.
WINNING TRULY DOESN’T MATTER
Athletes will tell you ‘Winning is the only thing,’ but that isn’t the case.
At the collegiate level, competing in a certain league and having more extravagant facilities are the two primary factors in the vast majority of recruiting decisions, even more so than coaching or playing time.
Villanova checks both of those aforementioned boxes for recruits within their neighborhood, while Butler does not.
The Bulldogs have been the most successful high-major program in this state over the past 28 seasons, but in terms of recruiting that has proven to be mostly irrelevant.
It doesn’t matter what Butler achieves on the court, playing in the Big Ten carries more weight with kids from the Midwest than playing in the Big East. I don’t get it, but that Thursday trip to Iowa City in January must be ‘lit.’
Butler has won 616 games over that span in comparison to Indiana (595), Purdue (573) and Notre Dame (543).
The Bulldogs have also been successful in the postseason.
Butler has three Sweet 16s on its resume to go with a pair of appearances in the national championship game (2010 and 2011).
No other program has gotten to the title game more than once (Indiana in 2002), although, the Hoosiers did advance to a Final Four (1992), as well as five Sweet 16s.
Purdue also has advanced to five Sweet 16s, as well as a pair of Elite 8s, but no further.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has gotten to a couple of Elite 8s, but that is it.
Another big reason for Villanova’s success is the fact that Wildcats’ coach Jay Wright has been committed to the university and basketball program for 16 years, while his Butler counterparts simply have not been. Like it or not, Butler fans, that lack of devotion resonates with recruits and hurts a program’s prestige.
If Butler can’t keep a coach from leaving, then why should a recruit be impressed enough to commit to the Bulldogs?
Mike Brey and Matt Painter have no intention of ever leaving their programs, and Tom Crean wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been fired.
If LaVall Jordan is offered the Michigan job when John Beilein retires at some point, he’ll be on I-69 quicker than ‘Trip’ chases down a bone.
Butler apologists (and the coaches who left) can reason each departure, but make no mistake, with each passing of a tenure; the shine of the program dulls a bit.
If leading the Bulldog program was as special as each one of Barry Collier, Thad Matta, Todd Lickliter, Brad Stevens, and Chris Holtmann effusively professed, then why did they all choose to leave?
Undoubtedly, Wright has had a multitude of offers through the years, but he finds Villanova special and he backs that up by remaining there.
FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
Like most of Villanova’s Big East foes (and Michigan, as well), Butler faces a tall task in closing the margin between itself and the Wildcats, and another national championship tonight won’t help matters. However, it can be done.
Here is a game plan for sustained, high-level success on the part of the Butler program moving forward, which will elevate the Bulldogs to the Wildcats’ level.
* Spend the money to immediately renovate West Gym into a top-notch practice facility
* Spend more time and resources recruiting the East Coast and the rest of the country than you ever do in the Midwest.
* Sit down with Jordan and figure out why recruiting hasn’t been strong since his hiring 10 months ago and resolve any issues (and yes, I mean ANY issues, including staff changes, if necessary). Jordan has shown that he can coach, but he has to demonstrate the ability to recruit and he hasn’t as of yet and we’re 10 months into this thing.
* Pay what is necessary to have the best coaching and support staff possible.
* Once Jordan has demonstrated the ability to recruit, rework his deal by giving him and his assistants the security of extended years, but with a prohibitive buyout on their part so that you can cease this revolving door of coaches. And yes, they’ll sign it, they have no leverage. Jordan was an 11-win coach at Milwaukee before Collier changed his life and that of his family by giving him lifetime financial security. If he doesn’t want to sign a re-worked deal he can quit and go back to the Horizon League. Colleges hold 100 percent of the leverage in these negotiations, yet they always act as if it is the other way around.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.