What does Butler’s run do for us?

The benefits of Butler's run to the Final Four are already felt in Indy. What about here?

It’s been almost a week since the end of the 2010 season, with the first Horizon League team ever advancing beyond the Sweet 16.  In fact, unless you’ve been under a rock, you would know that Butler went wire to wire in the tournament, a Gordon Hayward heave from sports immortality and the first Horizon League team to win a national championship.

For a lot of us in the black and gold, it’s bittersweet.  We love the fact that a conference school was so close to a title, but there exists a feeling at the pit of our stomach about what could have been over the past decade – had Bo never left, or Bruce never left, or Jeter had gotten the recruits he offered when he first got here (Adam Koch, Ali Faroukhmanesh, etc.)

Those of us that live in the now, and want to see the program improve so we too might play in a national title game, want to know: what does Butler’s run do for us?

*Recruiting*

The first and most obvious answer is that it is a selling point in recruiting.  Now, coaches Chad Boudreau, Brian Bidlingmeyer and Duffy Conroy can sit down in a recruits living room and tell them that with the right people, Milwaukee can make it to a national championship.

Is that true?  Absolutely.  Milwaukee is definitely the type of school that can reach that kind of level.  Had Ed McCants not gone cold against Illinois in 2005, a Butler fan may have wrote this a week after we were in the Final Four.  What fans need to recognize is that the NCAA Tournament is often a crapshoot.  More times than not the best teams make the Final Four, but teams at the top lose all the time.  Ask Kansas how they enjoyed this year’s tournament.

Milwaukee has been recruiting high level players for years.  The problem with us is that we haven’t been able to convince the best players we recruit that Milwaukee is the best option for them.  We could offer a scholarship to JP Tokoto, but is he going to commit here or Kansas, given the choice?  Well, the odds are still stacked heavily in favor of the Jayhawks, but one of the advantages is gone: the notion that a Horizon League school cannot win a national championship.

Does it mean we’re going to get better recruits?  I believe so; we’ve already seen, with the commitments of Kyle Kelm and Evan Richard, that good players are picking Milwaukee.  What I think happens is that players who normally would cut us off the list earlier will give us longer looks.  The level of recruiting for the conference as a whole is getting higher.  Ray McCallum Jr., cousin of our own Ja’Rob and son of Detroit coach Ray Sr., is down to Arizona and Detroit as his final two schools.  Josh Selby, a top-5 recruit, is now considering Butler.

*Scheduling*

This is where we may find some difficulties. High-majors have much deeper pockets than mid-majors (for instance, Wisconsin’s athletic budget hovers around $93 million compared to Milwaukee’s $9.5 million), and as such have more flexibility with their schedules.  In NCAA basketball, guarantee or “buy” games exist, typically where a school with deep pockets pays a financially struggling program cash to play at their arena.

This does several things.  First, it helps the low or mid-major on their bottom line.  Second, it gives the high-major a home game, where they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars from tickets, parking, concessions, advertising, and merchandise sales.  Thirdly, the low-major gets a high-profile program on their schedule – Presbyterian can sell to recruits that they play some of the best teams in the country.  What it really comes down to is the high-major is basically buying a victory, because the low-majors and occasional mid-majors they schedule “buy” games with are low-level schools.  Of course, that doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes it’s a guaranteed loss.

Some schools are notorious for it.  Marquette, in our own backyard, typically schedules Wisconsin, Milwaukee, a slew of low-major guarantee games, and an early season tournament.  The idea is that they don’t need to test themselves early on because they’re going to go through the Big East, and that stretch will be demanding enough to prepare them for the NCAA Tournament.  Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has said he’ll never schedule another Horizon League school again after Cedric Jackson’s bomb dropped in the Carrier Dome.  I don’t blame him either, I wouldn’t want this to happen every year.

It’s a practice that sits just fine with high-majors. Many of them do get enough of a test from their conference season to prepare them for the NCAA Tournament.  Teams like Duke, who schedule high-majors and mid-majors during the non-conference season every year, are few and far between.  It paid off for Duke this year.

The negative impact on mid-majors, specifically the Horizon League, is that our level of play exceeds that of low-major conferences.  Our League, as a whole, doesn’t stack up with the ACC or Big East.  While a couple teams would finish well in those conferences, we’re just not at that level.  We are, however, playing superior basketball to low-majors such as the OVC and zombie Mid-Continent Conference (Summit League).

Why does this hurt us?  Because high-majors would prefer to give their guarantee games to teams they know they’re going to win.  To Texas fans, there’s not much difference between Milwaukee and Chicago State, even though the whooping Milwaukee would put on Chicago State could be even greater than the potential beatdown that MKE could receive from the Longhorns.

Conversely, Milwaukee is an athletic program with a budget a fraction the size of a “power” conference school.  Where $50,000 is chump change to Wisconsin and they’ll be happy to give it up to Cal Poly and Grambling State for the guaranteed victory, Milwaukee can’t afford to put that money on the table, because $50,000 would represent a sizable amount of our athletic budget.  That money is much better spent in recruiting.

So, Milwaukee is stuck.  We aren’t being offered “buy” games (our last one was the first game with Marquette, part of a bigger series) and we can’t afford to pay other schools.  Our options are these: take bad series with high-majors (our current 4-for-1 with MU and 8-for-2 with UW come to mind) or take home-and-homes with other mid-majors and potential 2-for-1 series with low-majors.

We currently have a 2-for-1 with SIU-Edwardsville, a low-major outside St. Louis.  The main reason we took that series was because it put us on display to Shaquille Boga, the younger brother of current Panther Lonnie Boga.  The St. Louis recruiting base that we have established (Boga, Tony Meier) made the SIU-E series attractive.

Potentially, the Panthers could take 2-for-1’s with high-majors.  Rumors of those series with Cincinnati and Missouri were on the table this year are attractive to season-ticket holder, but we have to remember our responsbility to them.  A team is only allowed 28 games in a season, 31 if they have an exempt tournament.  With nine home games from the Horizon League, the coaching staff wants to put between 13 and 15 home games in Milwaukee every season.  If we sign too many 2-for-1’s with high majors, there could be years where we have 11 or 12 home games, and many season-ticket holders will not like that.  The answer to that conundrum is mid-majors.  Mid-major schools are good enough to test us for the conference season and potential post-season, and they also allow for equal scheduling.

This season, the Panthers started a home-and-home with Bowling Green of the MAC; that series ends next year in Milwaukee.  Next year, we start a home-and-home with Western Michigan, another MAC school.  The idea is this gives us a regional away game every year, as well as a home game against a decent school with better name recognition than Colorado State-San Pueblo.  The even scheduling, particularly our recent, solid practice of home-and-homes with MAC schools, gives us games that make us better.  The Miami game in 2008-09 was a hell of a game tape (albeit a blowout loss), and the Bowling Green game this season showed us how to win down the wire in overtime.  The WMU series, combined with the 2-for-2 series with Sweet 16 participant UNI, make the schedule for the Panthers look particularly enticing in the coming years.

But, it’s difficult.  We can’t get Illinois to agree to a 2-for-2, even though UNI was a much better team this year.  That’s because UNI can’t afford to pay guarantee games, Illinois can.  Also, Illinois believes it gets enough of a test from the Big Ten every year that it doesn’t need quality mid-major series, just “buy” games.  Butler’s finish helped a great deal in giving us the upper hand in conversations with other teams.  We don’t have to take 4-for-1’s with high-majors anymore.

The last way to get good scheduling is through the exempt tournament.  In our forgettable 9-22 season, the Panthers played host in the John Thompson Classic to Radford, UAB, and Washington State.  Radford was a decent low-major, UAB a very good mid-major, and Washington State a burgeoning powerhouse high-major under Wisconsin native Tony Bennett.

This upcoming season, the Panthers will play in Portland at the Athletes in Action Basketball Classic against FAU, UC Davis, and host Portland. All three are very high quality mid-major opponents that will give Milwaukee decent tests for the conference season.

With the schedule nearly finished, it looks as though every game will be a quality one. Butler’s run has played a big part in that, because schools in the mid-major and low-major level want to have a team from Butler’s conference on their schedule.  Hopefully this means less regular season games against schools like Hillsdale and Concordia-St. Paul.  The series with SIU-Edwardsville, if we schedule correctly, should be the bottom of the barrel from now on.

*Financially*

Butler’s run had a very tangible impact on our bottom line.  The NCAA does not keep any money from its basketball tournament, instead dividing the money up between each of its member institutions.  The unit, which is NCAA’s division of the money, is given to each conference based on finish in the NCAA Tournament.  For each at-large school to qualify for the tournament, the conference gets one unit.  For each victory excluding the national championship, the conference gets one unit.

For those of you scoring at home, Butler’s automatic bid did not net the Horizon League a unit.  However, their victories over UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State all brought in a unit to the Horizon League.  This season, each unit is $222,502.  That number is multiplied by six, because each unit is paid to a conference for six years.  So, every year for the next six season, the Horizon League will receive that $222,502 per unit.  Each unit, over the next six years, is worth $1,335,012.  With five victories, the Horizon League’s take is $6,675,060 over the next six years.

What does this mean for Milwaukee?  Well, every year, the Horizon League’s take from the 2010 NCAA Tournament will be $1,112,510.  That money, then, will be divided among each of the member schools, with Butler receiving two pieces of the pie for being the team that notched the marks into our belt. Ten members schools, with one extra for Butler, divides that money up 11 ways – $101,137 per school, per year for the next six years.  For a school with a $9.5 million budget, that is a lot of money.  If George Koonce is smart, he’d put that money directly into two things: recruiting budget and marketing.  Recruiting budget because we stand a much better chance of making our team better, and marketing because we can put many more butts in the seats and make money on our own.

Next season, with Marquette, Northern Iowa and Butler coming in, there are three marquee games that usually are not there every year.  Milwaukee Athletics needs to capitalize on this money by ensuring that the arena, whether its the U.S. Cellular Arena or the Klotsche Center, is packed.

*Respect*

Let’s face it; you don’t know crap about Eastern Illinois.  They’re a school with not much athletic history, they cling to Tony Romo as much as Marquette clings to Dwyane Wade, they have two NCAA tournament appearances and no victories.  But Murray State is a team they play twice a year, the same Murray State that won 30 games and nearly toppled national runner-up Butler.  EIU can now sell that game to their fans, their recruits, and the nation as a bona fide rivalry, a game to watch.

And the same goes for the Horizon League.  A lot of people will be quick to point out that Butler went undefeated, but Milwaukee can point to the fact that they led Butler twice at halftime this year, and on both occasions had the Bulldogs on the ropes going into the closing two minutes.  This is also a team that Milwaukee beat last year and we can argue that we are their archrival (with Wright State being the only other team with a legitimate claim).

The people who are most affected by UWM, those that live in the state of Wisconsin, have long looked at the Horizon League as second class.  But the fact of the matter is that the Big Ten and Big East were unrepresented in the National Championship game, and the Horizon League was there.  For one season, this season, the Horizon League had a better finish than the Big East and Big Ten.  In fact, the Horizon League’s lone representative knocked off two of the biggest opponents from those conferences, Syracuse in the Sweet 16 and Michigan State in the Final Four.

You can bet that the people in Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin will be paying close attention when the Panthers take on the only team that could make a better case than Green Bay as our archrival.  And unless I’m mistaken, at least one of the Milwaukee-Butler match-ups will be played on national television in the 2010-11 season.

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