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Keidel: NCAA Final: Big Dog Vs. Underdog

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UConn's Jim Calhoun (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images), Butler's Shawn Vanzant (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

UConn’s Jim Calhoun (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images), Butler’s Shawn Vanzant (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Jason Keidel
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March Madness has been distilled into two teams named after canines, yet there’s only one underdog.

Butler, tugging our heartstrings from the Heartland, embodies the college spirit, at least the one we remember just fifteen years ago, before the game was Bogarted by the one-and-done prodigies who use the classroom as a chalkboard funnel toward their first sneaker deal.

If there’s any redemption in the teen idol leaping to the NBA, it’s the room he leaves for teams like Butler, whose seniors actually take their own tests and find there’s something to this whole college degree thing. Phenoms like John Wall, Carmelo, and Kemba aside, the gap between a freshman and a senior is wider than a few chest hairs. Basketball, despite ESPN’s attempt to frame the game as an embellished slam-dunk contest, is still a team endeavor. Butler has proved that for two years.

Simply, it’s easy to root for one and against the other. At least it is for me. UConn is not NYC-North, but rather Boston-Lite, a suburb of the Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox. If you’re a native New Yorker then you’re born with the mean, territorial gene, predisposed to hate all things New England.

Calhoun calcifies this hatred, as he is those things we loathe, from the accent to the arrogance – he was horribly condescending on Saturday during his halftime interview with Tracy Wolfson – and the notion that he nobly runs the UConn juggernaut as his own suspension looms next year. At least John Calipari knows he’s shady and doesn’t give a damn what we think. Indeed, there’s a dignity to Coach Cal’s defiance, his middle digit forever flexed toward the establishment. He doesn’t hate the player; he knows the game.

Calhoun’s groupies assert that he’s done a masterful job with this team, a band of young brothers who went 9-9 in the Big East but 22-0 against everyone else. The journey to genius is exponentially smoother when you have the best player in the sport, as Calhoun has in Kemba Walker.

Butler, with a “what, me worry?” roster and a baby-faced savant for a coach who still gets carded at clubs, has to be our nation’s darling tonight. America loves this underdog, from their selfless game to their smelly mascot.

Where’s the romance in rooting for UConn? Calhoun, smug on his best days, will be incorrigible with a third ring Yes, he’s a fine college coach, but handing the ball to the country’s best player and watching him dominate is hardly a new narrative. (Yes, I’ve oversimplified Calhoun’s job to make a larger point.)

And how often will this Butler (or similar Cinderella) stuff happen? Doesn’t the chalk always walk away with the hardware? George Mason almost made it. Almost. Take a look at the list of national champions and you’ll find a roll call of colossal programs.

Villanova beating Georgetown doesn’t count, nor does Duke stunning UNLV. Texas Western was a wonderful story, but they were better than Kentucky; America just wasn’t enlightened enough to know it in 1966.

Fans have touted this tournament as the most exciting and unpredictable one we’ve ever seen. I’ll buy in, if the right dogs win.

And thus I will be rooting for Butler and their panting, drooling, snorting mascot whose wrinkled face can hide a thousand bookmarks, as they make marks in history books.

Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com

www.twitter.com/JasonKeidel

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