|Rotnei Clarke (front) and Kameron Woods celebrate Butler's first win over a top-ranked team. (US Presswire)|
Butler has had so many big moments in the past five years. In terms of huge wins in the regular season, however, it's hard to argue anything was as significant as what transpired in Indianapolis on Saturday.
In fact, history proves it. Butler's 88-86 overtime win against previously undefeated No. 1 Indiana was the first time the program knocked off a top-ranked team. It was the Bulldogs' fifth chance at getting an opportunity to do so, and damn if this wasn't the perfect timing. Let's detail why.
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The win was great on the surface for obvious reasons. Not only was it historic, but in terms of this season, it will have huge merit come NCAA tournament selection time. If Butler winds up as a four seed instead of a five, or a six seed instead of an eight, you can point to right here and right now as the reason. Indiana won't lose five games before postseason play, so being able to claim this scalp will indisputably have a season-long shelf life.
Also realize Butler is now boasting victories over North Carolina, Marquette, Northwestern and the Hoosiers. Butler hides from no one, and it's been that way almost since the beginning of Brad Stevens' tenure. It's now an 8-2 club that will carry the biggest target on its back heading into its inaugural season in the Atlantic 10.
Ah, yes, the Atlantic 10. That arrangement brings us to the big-picture significance and coincidental symbolic nature of Saturday's impressive, dramatic victory. The A-10 is the new home for the Bulldogs, the bully of the Horizon League for the decade prior. Butler and VCU's addition to the A-10 this past summer instantly made the league a lot better than it already was, and it was always a good league to begin with.
But was Butler born to be more of a sublet situation than a permanent home-buyer in that conference? That could be the case, and even if Butler had lost by 60 to Indiana, it's prognosis going forward would be undoubtedly positive. Yet here's why beating Indiana was so perfect, such a serendipitous dovetail of events. On Saturday, the Big East made it official: the league is breaking up. The Catholic 7 will be starting a new league, and Butler is a prime target for the new union. We don't know for sure if Butler officials want or are eager to switch conferences again, but it will be heavily courted nonetheless and will take the invitation seriously.
Outside of the big conference -- and even many of those schools don't fit into this next statement -- there's no bigger splash, maybe other than Gonzaga, than to get Butler in your league. Butler, the program of recent back-to-back national title games, is now actually probably a better pull than Gonzaga, which only has one Elite Eight to its name and doesn't tentacle to Seattle like Butler does to Indianapolis. (TV markets: always so important.)
Saturday was not an audition. It was a performance and the latest indisputable statement of how far Butler has come and why it stands to be as big a reason to embrace the Catholic 7's new league as any other team's membership.
There again was Stevens, the man still four years away from 40, brilliantly coaching to another win that proved he's minimally a top-five coach in college basketball. If you watched the game, you heard CBS' Clark Kellogg give Butler "no chance" once Indiana freak frosh Yogi Ferrell hit a tying 3 to send the game into overtime. Many on social media agreed: Butler was done, thanks to IU's momentum and the fact two Bulldogs players fouled out in the waning minutes of regulation, when Butler gave back a lead it surprisingly took in the first place.
But again, everything came up Butler. This was the best game I've seen so far this season, and I have doubts anything from now until mid-March will top it. That ending: quintessential Stevens. He's got a good horde of scorers. Kellen Dunham, Rotnei Clarke: these are all-college basketball shooters. But Dunham, who hit a few big ones earlier in the game, sat in overtime. Who was in on the pivotal possession? A former walk-on you've never heard of, a sophomore named Alex Barlow who scored two points all of last year.
It was Barlow with the ball as time slinked away. With Jordan Hulls guarding, Barlow put up a turning, falling-to-his-right, one-handed floater. Before it dropped through with 2.4 left in OT, Barlow's shot touched the rim once, then the glass once, then bounced on the glass three more times before dropping through.
The anonymous Bulldog who scores not even two points per game was the one who gave the game to one of the nation's most beloved and embraceable college teams.
That's why we love Butler. That's why the Atlantic 10 wanted Butler. That's why Butler's going to have its choice again, why it can go and join the Catholic 7's colony on its terms if it wants to. Here's the thing: Butler is moving up the conference food chain, yet it would never be in this position were it not for the man who's passed up dozens of job offers in the past five years in order to build Butler into the booming and proud program it's become.