Saturday’s game between Butler and Indiana in Indianapolis was one that may ultimately go down as the best of this regular season.
The Bulldogs’ improbable 88-86 overtime win over top-ranked Indiana was played out a little bit like—and I know it’s cliché—an alternative, collegiate version of the movie “Hoosiers”.
Actually, that analogy may be unfair to Butler. Despite being unranked and beating No. 1, the Bulldogs have already acquitted themselves very well this year and have an extensive recent history of beating top teams.
On the other hand, the movie analogy may work because of who ultimately decided the outcome.
Alex Barlow, the unlikeliest of heroes, gave Butler the upset. The sophomore point guard—and former walk-on—took the ball and put up a driving, right-handed scoop that bounced around the rim, seemingly for forever, before falling with just a few seconds to play.
It is hard not to think of Butler’s dramatic win without thinking of another game from about this time a year ago, also in the state of Indiana. While the finish wasn’t quite the same, last year’s game also featured a team winning on a last-second shot that beat the nation’s top team.
I am of course talking about last year’s Kentucky-Indiana classic, where the Hoosiers won 73-72 on a three-pointer by Christian Watford as time expired.
What makes that game so similar to Saturday’s shocker in Indy? What might make this year’s game just as significant—if not more so—than last year’s thriller in Bloomington?
Unranked beats No. 1, in Indiana
Butler—like Indiana last year—came into the game unranked. That is often the most convenient reason to write off a team’s chances when facing a top-ranked team.
However, both teams entered their respective games among the stronger of the unranked. Butler, at 7-2, already owned wins over then-No. 9 North Carolina, Marquette and Northwestern. Indiana went into its game last December undefeated at 8-0. The Hoosiers had beaten N.C. State and—you guessed it—Butler prior to facing Kentucky.
For many who follow the Bulldogs rather closely—or anyone who remembers the fact that they recently won 10 NCAA Tournament games in two years—this game may not have been as big a surprise. It also helped that the game was played in downtown Indy, meaning any of the neutral (as in Notre Dame or Purdue) fans were pulling for Butler, with their support building as the game remained close later on.
Playing at home in Assembly Hall last year, Indiana enjoyed the kind of home-court advantage that can make knocking off No. 1 a very real possibility. While Butler’s team this year was a little more proven, last year’s Hoosiers certainly had the talented pieces to challenge Kentucky. The Wildcats were still coming together themselves at that time, with that elite freshman class still learning to play together.
For Indiana, the win immediately thrust them back into the national spotlight, garnering it a new level of respectability and helped to lay the foundation for the success the team has enjoyed over the past year.
Overcoming Late-game Adversity
Butler has developed an incredible ability to battle against anyone, regardless of possible size, talent or depth disparities. All three of those became even more prevalent late in the second half against Indiana.
Within a span of 17 seconds, Butler’s two best frontcourt players—Andrew Smith and Roosevelt Jones—fouled out of the game. The two had combined for 28 points and 21 rebounds and helped to make Indiana’s elite big man, Cody Zeller, rather average throughout the game.
Butler led by five after both fouled out with just under two minutes to play, but was unable to hold that lead. The Bulldogs were forced to settle for overtime after Yogi Ferrell’s game-tying three with 10 seconds left.
Going into the extra period, Butler was given little chance to prevail given the loss of Smith and Jones, along with the big swing in momentum. However, those are the situations where the Bulldogs seem to thrive. Despite falling down by four points with two minutes to play, Butler ultimately came back to earn the improbable win.
Indiana had a bit different form of adversity to overcome, but like Butler, also came out on top.
Which was the more exciting game?
The Hoosiers led Kentucky throughout the second half and held a nine-point lead with eight minutes to go. With the upset possibilities getting more and more real, they suddenly could not find the basket.
IU went on to make just one shot over the next seven minutes and fell behind by a point with two minutes to play. The tone in the building went from one that sensed an extraordinary win to one sensing a devastating loss.
After the two teams traded baskets and Doron Lamb hit a free throw with six seconds to play, the stage was set for Indiana.
Threes to Remember
Inbounding the ball at the end of the game, Indiana had two options. One was to get the ball as close to the basket as possible and take its chances in five more minutes against the nation’s top team.
The other was to win right then, or go home.
Taking the ball inside the three-point line, Verdell Jones III held Indiana’s fate in his hands for a couple seconds. He stopped, turned and found Watford beyond the three-point line. Jones got the ball to him, giving Watford a relatively clean look from deep.
Watford, of course, buried the three—all net. Madness ensued at Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers had an amazing win that will be talked about for years to come.
In Saturday’s win over Indiana, Butler may not have hit a three-pointer quite as dramatic as Watford’s. However, there were two consecutive long-range baskets that the Bulldogs’ upset would have never been possible without.
Rotnei Clarke is the kind of player that can routinely hit shots that even the best shooters in college basketball struggle with. With his team trailing by four, and less than two minutes to play in the overtime, he hit one of those shots. Clarke took a pass on the move and quickly fired from about 25 feet out—and nailed the shot. Suddenly, Butler once again had a chance.
On the next possession, it was a veteran role player that followed up Clarke’s heroics. Chase Stigall—forced into action down the stretch due to three players fouling out—took a pass from Clarke at the top of the key. After a pass-fake that gave him a clear look, Stigall put up the three and buried it.
The back-to-back threes put Butler up by two with a minute to go. Despite allowing Indiana to tie the game, Barlow was ultimately able to win the game on his drive in the final seconds. The drive, you could certainly argue, was made possible by the long-range potential of guys like Clarke, Stigall and Kellen Dunham. Even in a tie game, each could have seen a look from deep in that situation.
While the endings were slightly different, both games were decided in the final seconds. In each case, Goliath went down.
Just like Indiana’s win over Kentucky a year ago, Butler’s improbable win over the Hoosiers this past weekend will likely go down as the best game played between now and March.