Butler, again, delivers the best story when the sports world needs it
After watching a pompous bicycling legend ooze with arrogance one day and trying to determine whether Notre Dame's favored son was fraudulent or gullible the next, the nation was in dire need of someone lovable, someone who could help convince us all that there was still morality, a wholesomeness in the sports world. Enter Brad Stevens. Yes, the clean-cut, still baby-faced Brad Stevens.
INDIANAPOLIS -- After watching a pompous bicycling legend ooze with arrogance one day and trying to determine whether Notre Dame's favored son was fraudulent or gullible the next, the nation was in dire need of someone lovable, someone who could help convince us all there was still morality, a wholesomeness in the sports world.
Enter Brad Stevens. Yes, the clean-cut, still baby-faced Brad Stevens.
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Saturday night was a scene straight out of Hoosiers. All that was missing was Jimmy Chitwood. There wasn't an empty seat at Hinkle Fieldhouse when Butler's Roosevelt Jones stole the inbounds pass, took five dribbles and threw up a right-handed runner from just inside the foul line that found the net as the horn sounded.
Boy Wonder had done it again.
Stevens, the genius who had a pair of national title appearances on his resume prior to his 35th birthday, found a way to knock off No. 8 Gonzaga, 64-63, without leading scorer Rotnei Clarke. His team was overmatched talent-wise, but that's nothing new with Stevens and the Bulldogs. This is the same program that came within a basket of winning it all in 2010 against mighty Duke.
But this was different because Clarke was on the sidelines in a sweater, Stevens didn't have a couple of future NBA players on the court -- and this was a 'Zags team that arrived in Indianapolis with a 17-1 mark, the best in school history.
Quickly, though, Butler was down 13-4 just minutes into the game. Ronald Nored, the defensive-minded guard on the teams that advanced to the final game in 2010 and 2011, received a text from one of his players (he's now a high school coach) that this was getting ugly.
"Do not count out Brad Stevens," Nored texted back.
You'd think people would learn by now.
This was the ideal setting with the backdrop being Hinkle Fieldhouse, one of the oldest arenas in the country. ESPN's Gameday with two of the elite "mid-major" programs in the nation, although it's truly not accurate to refer to either Gonzaga or Butler as anything but elite after what they have both accomplished in recent years. The two coaches, Mark Few and Stevens, have drawn comparisons -- and Few admitted there are no shortage of similarities. Both are laid-back, have turned down numerous opportunities to go elsewhere for more money and both have brought their program that unprecedented heights.
This may have been the best college basketball game of the season. No, it was the best college basketball game of the season. We have been waiting for that signature moment -- and this was it. Sure, we had the Bulldogs victory over then top-ranked Indiana, but that was on a neutral floor -- and it's just not the same. This one featured a court-storming in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
This was exactly what sports needed after the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax and Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey. The sports nation deserved to see the purity of college sports -- and all you had to do was be in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday night to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about a sport that has been crucified in recent years for its culture of cheating.
"This was the best atmosphere I've ever seen here," said Butler athletic director Barry Collier, who coached this program for more than a decade.
Butler controlled most of the second half, but the lead changed hands multiple times in the final two minutes. There was an Elias Harris drive to put Gonzaga up 59-58, but Jones answered with a drive of his own. Harris answered with a 12-footer off the glass, but the hero of the Indiana victory, walk-on Alex Barlow, appeared to provide the heroics again with 22.5 seconds left. However, the crowd went silent after Kelly Olynyk buried a pair of free throws with 4.6 seconds left and Barlow traveled on the ensuing inbounds play.
Then came an errant David Stockton inbounds pass, intended for Olynyk.
That's when Hinkle Fieldhouse erupted and the Butler students filled the court.
This was a setting that stacks up there with Cameron Indoor Stadium or Allen Fieldhouse, but what made it ultimately spectacular was that it came without all the future pros on the court. Sure, there will be guys who make money playing the game on the floor, but this was just different. This is basketball in its purest form.
"No question about it," Few agreed. "It was a fantastic, electric environment."
Clarke was out with a neck injury suffered one week earlier in which the medical personnel initially feared he was done for the season with a broken clavicle. Clarke, who was averaging 16.3 points and also ran the offense, told CBSSports he'll be back on Jan. 26 at home against Temple.
"It was tough to sit and watch," he said after the win. "But it was worth it to get the win."
Stevens isn't quite ready to compare this group to the ones that made history, going from the Horizon league to the final Monday night in April. Those teams had pros. Guys like Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack -- and a one-of-a-kind player in Matt Howard. However, this group does have a special quality, improving to 16-2 overall with wins over Indiana, Marquette and now Gonzaga.
"I'll wait two months to tell you," Stevens said of whether this team can be put in the same breathe as the teams in 2010 and 2011. "The teams that can do it for five months are special. … These guys are just crazy enough to make me believe it."
Butler somehow outrebounded a mammoth Gonzaga team, 28-26. The Bulldogs, even without their best shooter, managed to make 8 of 19 from long distance. Jones, a virtual non-shooter, make the game-winner as the horn sounded. Nored admitted that he was uncertain about this year's group entering the season. The team's most athletic guard Chrishawn Hopkins, was kicked off prior to the start of the season. Now the team was without Clarke.
"It's a great win. It'll be a special memory in January," Stevens said. "We'll be lucky to live some just as special memories in March and April."
As long as this program has Stevens, there's good reason to believe.
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