BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In a state that is synonymous with basketball, the Indiana Hoosiers have, for decades, been the benchmark for success. But in the last two seasons, the Butler Bulldogs havetwice done something Indiana hasn't accomplished in a decade: make it to the NCAA National Championship Game. "The Way" powered the team from Hinkle Fieldhouse to back-to-back runner-up runs, and while this year's edition of the Bulldogs is a young squad missing several key pieces, it has earned respect on the court. Meanwhile, a once-proud IU program is living on past glories, plumbing the depths of the B1G and wistfully fantasizing about stealing Brad Stevens away.So when the Bulldogs traveled to a sold-out Assembly Hall on Sunday night to take on the Hoosiers for the first time in Stevens' tenure, something more than a regular non-conference matchup was at stake. It was, perhaps, nothing less than a battle for the soul of Indiana basketball.
The Way met The Hall, winner-take-all.
For me, this was the most anticipated -- and most heart-wrenching -- game of the year. It was going to tear a hole in my soul, too. You see, for the last three seasons, I've been a staunch Mid-Majoritarian: staying up late for the Pixelvision Marathon, earning a Bally with rewritten Tom Petty lyrics and sinking every dime of my emotional investment into the forever-almost-there Idaho Vandals. Today, though, I'm a graduate student at Indiana University, and necessarily I feel some loyalty to my newly-adopted school. For better or worse, I'm a Hoosier now, cream and crimson and all that.
So it was with both joy and foreboding that I walked down into the maw of the lower-bowl student section, one row up from the courtside seats. I had "won the lottery" for this game, but my ticket put me in an uncomfortable situation. I couldn't really root against Butler, but I couldn't not root for Indiana, either. An internal compromise was struck -- I wore Indiana crimson but carried Bally #29 in my coat, deep into enemy territory. And while I cheered for the team whose logo adorns my student ID card (and paychecks), I couldn't help but pump my fist when Chrishawn Hopkins canned a three or Ronald Nored came up with a brilliant drive-and-dish. As I tweeted, seeing Nored and Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall and Chase Stigall reconnected me with my roots at TMM. Watching the Bulldogs in action, seeing The Way play itself out on the court, it reminded me of what we, The Royal Us, are all about.
I'll put it simply: the first 20 minutes of the game were the best 20 minutes of basketball I have seen in my life -- and I've seen Stew Morrill's Utah State teams put on a show, too. The arena was electric, the energy was incredible and the play was beautifully ugly. Every possession was a down-and-dirty streetfight, as both Butler and Indiana played tight defense, contesting virtually every shot and getting a hand on every pass. Anytime a shot was open, though, it was knocked down -- Hopkins was a stone-cold killa from deep and racked up 13 points in the opening stanza.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers' freshman center Cody Zeller (who turned down an offer from Butler) was held in check by Smith, while IU forward Christian Watford was booed off the court because he couldn't make a bucket to save his life. On the other side, though, Indiana's intense pressure forced the Bulldogs into 10 first-half turnovers, which kept the Bulldogs from fully capitalizing on their defensive stands. Neither team was able to make any sort of run and the home team went into the locker room holding just a three-point edge -- for Stevens, that had to be counted as a victory of sorts.
The Bulldogs opened the half with a fighting chance -- and took it. Hopkins gave the small Butler cheering section their biggest moment of the night when he put the Bulldogs up by a point with a fastbreak layup little more than a minute into the period. Fatefully, however, that would be Hopkins' last field goal of the game. IU forward Will Sheehey checked in to guard Hopkins, and the Bulldogs' sharpshooter was muzzled -- he wouldn't so much as attempt a shot the rest of the game. Indiana shortly took the lead back, but couldn't build it to more than three.
A three-minute scoreless stretch that began at the 17-minute mark perhaps best sums up the power -- and the limitations -- of this year's Butler team. Indiana's shooters were firing contested bricks and the vaunted Zeller was blocked by, of all people, Garrett Butcher -- who then stripped the ball away from IU guard Victor Oladipo. But on the other end of the court, the Bulldogs missed four shots, including three layups, and turned the ball over three times. The last of those turnovers, given up by Hopkins, was converted into a fastbreak #superhoop by Matt Roth that snapped the drought.
Still, the Hoosiers couldn't pull away. Marshall and Stigall kept Butler in the game, once then twice. At the under-12 media timeout, Indiana led by just three. Butler, it seemed, was holding on with a bulldog grip.
That tenuous hold finally loosened, just enough.
On a designed play out of the break, Sheehey canned a 3-pointer, Hopkins turned the ball over on the next possession and Indiana started running the floor. Nored tried to respond for the Bulldogs, but a Stigall turnover led to a fastbreak layup by IU guard Jordan Hulls. The Hoosier lead was nine, the crowd was going nuts, Stevens had seen enough and called time.
Out of the timeout, Stigall turned the ball over again, Watford was fouled and on the missed bonus free throw, Zeller cleaned up the offensive rebound and stuffed it home. The Hall exploded, the scoreboard read 51-39 Indiana, Stevens burned another timeout and the game was effectively over. All the rest was window-dressing and garbage time.
I'm not very good at takeaways, but it's obvious that Butler is sorely missing the experience and scoring of Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. Stevens just doesn't have the offensive firepower on his bench that he once did, and his young players are turning the ball over way too much against pressure defenses. Is a third National Championship Game in the cards? Well, after losing Gordon Hayward I'd have said they wouldn't have made a second, so I'm not going to be so dumb as to make any predictions against the Bulldogs. Stevens is too good of a coach and The Way has a way of making strange things reality.
I will say this for the Indiana fans: we aren't all jerks. Some benighted doofus in the student section just had to yell "Nored, you suck." A guy behind me turned to the blithering idiot and said "He went to the last two National Championship Games, dumbass."
Perhaps that's the ultimate takeaway. Sure, the old-guard Hoosiers walked away with bragging rights for the game, but Indiana still has to prove it's the equal of Butler in tournament success. Tom Crean has won recruiting battles, The Way has won NCAA Tournament games. Which would you choose? Yeah, that's what I thought -- and that's why IU basketball forums still bubble with unrequited love for Stevens.
While this is Indiana and we've got banners on the wall, as the bizarre student-created rap song insists -- as far as the Big Dance goes, the Hoosier State is all Butler blue for now.
at INDIANA 75, BUTLER 59 11/27/2011
BUTLER 3-3 (0-0) -- L. Aronhalt 4-9 4-4 15; A. Smith 1-7 0-0 3; C. Hopkins 7-12 4-4 19; R. Nored 1-5 4-6 6; K. Marshall 7-9 1-2 16; C. Stigall 2-6 1-3 6; R. Jones 2-6 1-2 5; J. Aldridge 1-4 0-0 3; G. Butcher 0-4 0-2 0; E. Fromm 0-2 1-3 1; K. Woods 0-0 0-0 0; A. Barlow 0-0 0-0 0; E. Kampen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-55 12-22 59. INDIANA 6-0 (0-0) -- J. Hulls 5-9 2-2 14; C. Zeller 4-9 8-10 16; W. Sheehey 5-8 8-10 21; V. Oladipo 2-5 5-6 10; C. Watford 2-10 2-4 7; V. Jones III 0-3 2-2 2; D. Elston 0-1 0-0 0; T. Pritchard 0-0 0-0 0; M. Roth 1-2 2-2 5; D. Moore 0-0 0-0 0; K. Barnett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-47 29-36 75.
Three-point goals: BUTL 5-18 (G. Butcher 0-1; R. Nored 0-1; C. Stigall 1-4; A. Smith 1-5; E. Fromm 0-1; C. Hopkins 1-3; K. Marshall 1-1; J. Aldridge 1-2), IND 8-13 (M. Roth 1-2; J. Hulls 2-3; C. Watford 1-2; V. Oladipo 1-2; W. Sheehey 3-4); Rebounds: BUTL 30 (A. Smith 7), IND 29 (C. Zeller 8); Assists: BUTL 7 (R. Nored 2), IND 9 (J. Hulls 3); Total Fouls -- BUTL 22, IND 18; Fouled Out: BUTL-C. Stigall; IND-None.