In a Final Four field that included Duke, West Virginia and Michigan State, it was easy to root for Butler simply because the Bulldogs weren't like everyone else. Everyone loves an underdog and while Butler was a 5-seed, the same as Michigan State, the fact that the Bulldogs didn't hail from one of the traditional big six conferences made them a fan favorite.
This year, fans don't have the easy choice.
With both No. 8 Butler and No. 11 VCU in the Final Four -- playing each other no less -- it begs the question, who's the underdog?
If you go by the Las Vegas books, the underdog would be VCU. Butler opened at a -2.5 favorite and that line has held steady all week. VCU is also the lower seed, which would make it the underdog based on NCAA selection committee's decision earlier this month.
But Butler coach Brad Stevens isn't buying any of it. He knows how sneaky and misapplied the underdog label can be and he's not going to fall into the trap of undervaluing VCU simply because of the number in front of its name.
"If you re-ranked the tournament right now, they'd be a 1-seed based on how they've played," Stevens said during his in-house media day earlier this week. "They've only played one close game. In five tournament games, against five BCS schools, they've only played one close game. It's been remarkable. You talk about clicking on all cylinders, they are clicking on all cylinders."
VCU has been the giant killer of the tournament. It has beaten USC from the Pac-10, Georgetown from the Big East, Purdue form the Big Ten, Florida State from the ACC and Kansas from the Big 12 all by an average of 12 points per game. The only close game the Rams played was a 72-71 win against the Seminoles. Otherwise, the other wins have been by double digits.
Butler hasn't been nearly as lucky. The Bulldogs games have been some of the closest and most exciting of the tournament. Forward Matt Howard scored the game-winning basket as time expired against Old Dominion and hit a game-winning free throw to defeat Pitt. Butler had an easier time against Wisconsin and was the beneficiary of poor play calling and clock management at the end of the Florida game. There's no doubt that Butler's games suggest the Bulldogs are living a charmed tournament while VCU is just playing angry.
"To be honest, the confidence has been extremely high throughout the whole run," VCU coach Shaka Smart said during the Final Four teleconference. "It's not as though we only felt we could win the first game, then we needed that win to build our confidence for the second game. Our guys, no matter who we go out there against, they believe we can win, they believe we're going to win."
It's clear that both of these teams came into the NCAA tournament high on confidence and that has helped them get to the Final Four. But now they're playing each other and not knocking down the big-name teams in the tournament, will they play with the same type of energy as they have the first three weeks? Is there more pressure now to perform against a team of similar class than there was against a Pittsburgh or a Kansas?
Of course Butler has the benefit of experience after playing in the national championship game a year ago. Several of those players are back and they probably won't cave to the bright lights and pressure.
But there's no telling how VCU will respond as it continues its quest to prove the national pundits wrong and become the first 11-seed to play for a national championship.
"The term 'parity' is an interesting term in college basketball. You're comparing two different things," Stevens said during the Final Four teleconference. "You're comparing budgets and then you're comparing teams that are on the court. Only five guys play in basketball at a time. You may have 13 McDonald's All-Americans, but you can only play five at once.
"At the end of the day it's about playing. I do think there is something to this. I think VCU and Butler played with a lot of pressure in January and February. When you get into the tournament, that pressure may flip a little bit. We're playing loose, we're playing for the first time in a lot of ways in a couple months where you've already been playing basically where you feel like you can't lose. So you're already used to that. So the NCAA tournament is a welcome. I think both teams have played really, really well because of that."