Last night's national championship game wasn't merely a matchup of the top two basketball teams, but of two institutions that ensure that their student-athletes leave school not only with memories of triumphs on the court but with degrees in hand. Duke University, which took home the title, graduates 92 percent of its basketball players, with Butler University following closely behind at 90 percent, according to a study done by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Duke was tied for the seventh highest graduation rate in this year's field of 65 and Butler stood 11th. The battle between institutions with such high academic standing was likely welcomed by the NCAA, which came under fire during the tournament from U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the NAACP for not imposing harsh enough penalties on schools with poor graduation rates among their athletes and high disparities in graduation rates between African-American players and white players.
Not only were Duke and Butler's graduation rates high, but the schools fare well in overall academic rankings to boot. Duke stands 10th in U.S.News & World Report's rankings of National Universities and Butler is ranked the second-best master's university in the Midwest. Butler and Duke, however, weren't the only academic powerhouses to make their presence felt in this tournament. Cornell University, this year's Ivy League champion and the 15th-ranked school in the National University rankings, shocked many by advancing through the first weekend of the tournament. A No. 12 seed in the East Region, Cornell dispatched No. 5 seed Temple University and fourth-seeded University of Wisconsin by a combined 31 points before falling to top-seeded University of Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Xavier University, ranked third in U.S.News & World Report's rankings of Universities-Masters in the Midwest also made a Sweet 16 run.
While Duke has been a basketball powerhouse for two decades, Butler's run to the title game will be this tournament's enduring story. Butler is a 155-year old liberal arts college near Indianapolis that many Americans weren't even aware existed until this March. Though the school has an enrollment of a mere 4,500 students, millions watching last night's national championship game likely yearned for sophomore Gordon Hayward's last-second halfcourt heave to find the bottom of the net. Instead, it barely missed, leaving Butler as the runner-up in its first national title game.
Butler's Matt Howard was among three of this year's five first-team Academic All-Americans who made appearances in the tournament. The University of Kansas's Cole Aldrich entered the tournament with more acclaim, having been named Academic All-American of the Year, but Kansas was shocked by the University of Northern Iowa in the second round in the tournament's biggest upset.
Aldrich's departure left Howard to carry the mantle of top academic star remaining in the Big Dance. The junior forward boasts a 3.77 GPA as a finance major and averaged 7.6 points and four rebounds in his six tournament games, including 11 points in last night's loss to Duke. Tim Abromaitis, a junior forward from the University of Notre Dame , was the other Academic All-American to reach the tournament, but his run was short-lived. After a trip to the semifinals in the grueling Big-East tournament, the sixth-seeded Fighting Irish were upset by Old Dominion University in the first round.
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