Admittedly, my memories of the events of December 29, 2001 are a bit vague. Part of that is the lapse of time and part of it is the fact that I did not actually attend the final of the Hoosier Classic at Conseco Fieldhouse between host Indiana and Butler.
I can't remember why I didn't go to the game. The game wasn't sold out. Maybe it was the prospect of paying a good chunk of money for a seat in the rafters of the incredibly huge fieldhouse. Maybe I was out of town on vacation. except I doubt that because I remember listening to the game on the radio and internet streaming of broadcasts back when most people still had dial-up doesn't seem right.
Butler came into the game with an undefeated record and had already posted victories over Washington in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout and over Purdue at Mackey Arena. After the previous evening's semifinal, a 45-37 slog-a-thon against Samford, Butler was 12-0, but still had not broken into the Top 25 of any of the major polls.
Indiana was mired in a bit of a slump, having already lost four games that season under coach Mike Davis, who was in his first official year on the job after taking over in an interim role the previous season for the fired legend, Bob Knight. The Hoosiers had beaten Eastern Washington 87-66 the previous evening to reach the final.
This shouldn't have been a trap game for Indiana with Butler's credentials. But how an 18-21 year-old's brain works, who knows sometimes. Indiana had never lost a game in the history of the Classic; they were 39-0. The tournament had been played in Market Square Arena and then Conseco Fieldhouse for 20 years to give local IU fans the opportunity to watch the team without having to make the hour-plus drive to Bloomington. Spending the night in downtown Indianapolis instead of their empty college campus may have provided some extra distractions.
I remember two distinct things about that game. The first was how mad Mike Davis was with the referees. Since this was technically an Indiana home game, the referees were assigned by the Big Ten. And for those who have watched Big Ten basketball, the names of Ed Hightower, Mike Sanzere and Tom Clark should be familiar. Looking back at the box score
, apparently Davis was not satisfied with the fact that Butler had only been called for five more fouls than Indiana. Davis picked up a late game technical foul from Sanzere which gave the lead to Butler with 2:10 remaining.
The second part I remember was the ending sequence to the game. With the game tied at 64, Thomas Jackson drove into the lane and unleashed a little floater with about five seconds left. The floater would bounce off the rim, but softly enough that Joel Cornette could gather the ball in mid-air with this as the end result...
Unfortunately, since the game was not on TV, this picture is about the only visual evidence. There were some local television highlights on the 11 o'clock news, but a Google or YouTube search produces nothing.
The post-game focused on Mike Davis and his antics, and his continued complaints
with the officiating. Butler would finally appear in the polls, debuting at No. 20 the next week. It was the first time the Butler men's basketball team had been ranked since 1949.
The stay in the rankings didn't last long. Butler would lose the first 2-of-3 games in the newly-renamed Horizon League. The Bulldogs would recover and win the league championship and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. There the unthinkable happened.
Hurting from hearing the news early that morning that guard Rob Walls' mother had passed away, the Bulldogs took to the court for the noon game against No. 8 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay. Butler would blow an eight-point lead with two minutes to go and lose 49-48. That loss and a RPI ranking of 77 would send the Bulldogs into the ghost bracket of the NIT despite a record of 25-5, to the outcry of many.
Indiana would have a mediocre run through Big Ten play, and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. Buoyed a bit by fortunate match-ups, they played No. 12 Utah, No. 13 UNC-Wilmington, and No. 10 Kent State (also No. 1 Duke) to get to the Final Four, where the Hoosiers would ultimately lose in the championship game to Maryland. But the legacy of the Hoosier Classic loss remains to this day. The Classic hasn't been played since. Indiana's Classic record ended at 39-1 and Butler remains the last champion of the Classic.
The heartbreak of 2002 would ultimately be remedied by a Sweet 16 run in the 2003 after sweating out another Selection Sunday. The defining moment of Butler's second-round win over Louisville also involved Cornette and Walls. Cornette went diving over the Butler bench trying to save a loose ball, and fell into the strategically-placed beverage cart the NCAA had placed there, knocking the contents of the coolers all over the floor.
Cornette's shoes got soaked to the point of being unplayable. Without enough time to run to the locker room to get a back-up pair, Walls, who wore the same size shoe as Cornette, gave up his shoes, allowing Cornette to stay on the court after a 30-second timeout. Walls would remain on the bench for the rest of the game in his socks.
Saturday, Butler and Indiana will meet again in what is now Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the Crossroads Classic double-header with Purdue and Notre Dame also meeting. Will this be a trap game for the No. 1 ranked Hoosiers? They should know better, given Butler's recent success. If the rumored conference realignment dominoes fall as expected, Butler will soon be on the same level as IU and not a "lowly mid-major." Who knows what will happen when a bunch of 18-21 year-olds take the court. The game's on national TV, I suggest you tune in and watch.