HOUSTON — Richmond and Cleveland State were the 1980s pioneers, charming and obscure underdogs who crashed the NCAA basketball tournament's Sweet 16.
Loyola Marymount, Rhode Island and Gonzaga went a step beyond during the '90s, reaching the Elite Eight. But bankrolled by television and their Division I-A football programs, the power-conference alpha pups ruled the Final Four like the Castro family does Cuba.
George Mason in 2006. Until Butler in 2010. Until VCU and Butler this year.
Yet one thing is missing: a national championship.
Butler attempts to fill that void Monday when it faces Connecticut in the title game at Reliant Stadium, and here's hoping coach Brad Stevens and Co., close the deal.
For themselves, a year after their agonizing loss to Duke in the tournament final.
For the so-called mid-majors, the programs with undersized budgets and oversized dreams.
And for college basketball, which could do without a national champion that violated NCAA recruiting standards.
The NCAA in late February restricted UConn's scholarships and suspended coach Jim Calhoun for three games next season. The Huskies' sin: Prospect Nate Miles received $6,000 in improper benefits from an agent who was also a UConn booster.
Calhoun insisted he was unaware of the payments, but the NCAA cited him for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Last week, however, Miles told the New York Times that Calhoun was aware.
"I know what I've done in 39 years of coaching," Calhoun said Sunday. "Quite frankly, I'm pretty comfortable with who I am. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you. But I know who I am and I'm comfortable with what I've done."
Regardless, handing the championship bling to Calhoun on Monday would be the NCAA's most awkward trophy presentation since UNLV and Jerry Tarkanian squashed Duke in 1990.
But even if you ignore the Dudley Do-Right versus Snidely Whiplash morality play, Butler's quest merits embracing.
Same would have applied were VCU in the final.
"College basketball's evolved over the past two, three decades," Rams coach Shaka Smart said after Saturday's 70-62 loss to Butler. "And … with the rise of grass-roots (summer) basketball, these guys have played against all the good players … from all the major conferences and … so they're not afraid."
It showed during the tournament as VCU defeated Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, all except the Seminoles handily. That's the Colonial Athletic Association's fourth-place squad dusting opponents from the Pacific 10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12.
"We went out there and we outplayed five (Bowl Championship Series) teams," Smart said. "Butler has done that. So it just shows, when you have a good program, you've got a senior-laden team, you've got a chance to win."
With four seniors among its top five scorers, VCU fit the bill. So did Old Dominion.
The Monarchs started three seniors and two juniors this season, won their second consecutive CAA tournament and absolutely were capable of reaching the Final Four. They were 2-1 against VCU and lost to Butler in the NCAA tournament on Matt Howard's buzzer-beating layup.