This shouldn’t even surprise us anymore. We should expect it to happen. It is a testament to our stubborness and lack of faith that we don’t consider Butler–a small private school on the north side of Indianapolis–as one of the premier college basketball programs in the United States. But they showed us again in the first game of the Crossroads Classic, by beating Indiana–the number one team in the land–88-86 in overtime. It seemed so fitting that the game’s winning basket was made by Alex Barlow, a walk-on.
Still led by youthful coach Brad Stevens (who has admiringly refused to consider coaching opportunities at more “prestigious” programs), the Bulldogs had what appears to be a reloading season a year ago, finishing a modest 22-15 and getting left out of the NCAA Tournament. But in playing a daunting pre-conference schedule, this year’s team seems to have started where the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 teams left off, both of which made it all the way to the NCAA final before losing to the likes of Duke and Connecticut, respectively. Before beating the Hoosiers, the Bulldogs had knocked off an impressive list of foes, including Marquette, North Carolina, and Northwestern. Their only blemishes to date came at Xavier and against Illinois in Hawaii. Their “next man up” star appears to be a transfer senior named Rotnei Clarke, who scored 19 points and made five three-pointers against Indiana.
It could certainly be suggested that Butler doesn’t play the “dazzling” brand of basketball that the Indianas and the Kentuckys do. This could explain why–as a couple friends who attended the game told me–that Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which is in Indianapolis–was full of disappointed Indiana fans on Saturday instead of elated Butler fans. Butler relies on a commitment to the dirty work: playing team defense, setting good screens, taking good shots, winning games a possession at a time.
The stylistic difference, along with Indiana’s longer and fuller tradition of success, perhaps explains why the Hoosiers continue to pluck seemingly whatever stock of state talent they want. Take their point guard, for example. Freshman Yogi Ferrell, who hit a three-pointer to put the IU-Butler game in overtime, played his high school ball at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, literally minutes away from Butler. Here’s a guy who came of age during Butler’s prime and Indiana’s fall and he still chose Indiana. Why else would he make that decision, unless he, like us, simply cannot believe what has been right in front of him: the reality that Butler, especially as long as Stevens is their coach, will be around for a while, reminding us that no one is going to push them around. Their success is no fluke. If this year’s team keeps playing the way they’re playing, I certainly wouldn’t want to face them in March.
With all the hype of the Classic’s game, the second game was almost an afterthought, even though it offered up a Notre Dame-Purdue match-up, which is an American-football rivalry in the fall. This season, like the past several, Notre Dame at least has a fine basketball team, too. Ranked 22nd, the Irish won their seventh straight contest by knocking off the struggling Boilermakers, 81-68. Jack Cooley just missed a double-double with 18 points and nine rebounds.