It’s a lot easier when you have everything to prove.
That’s how Butler played Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as they upset the No. 1 ranked Indiana Hoosiers 88-86 in thrilling overtime fashion.
For all of the questions that had been aroused between the Hoosiers and the Bulldogs, a fierce battle between big brother and little brother, only the Bulldogs had answers.
Size advantage Indiana? Butler played bigger.
A lack athleticism? Butler slowed it down.
Cody Zeller being the best player on the floor? Butler isolated him on a lonely, lonely free throw line.
This game brought upon a divisive recipe for the Hoosiers: jutting over them was the pressure to avoid a blemish to they’re perfect record – with 1976’s perfect record lurking in the shadows – while having to avoid being upset by their more recently accomplished little brother.
And you thought Finals week was tough?
Butler didn’t play harder, Hoosier faithful. There surely was no lack of effort out of the Hoosier players who scraped and clawed their way back, overcoming what was a seemingly insurmountable level of Butler momentum – a 16-2 run in the final minutes.
“I have no complaints what so ever with the amount of energy our guys played with or how hard they competed,” Tom Crean said. “Our spirit wavered a little bit based on the score, and we’ve got to play the same game in the spirit we made the comeback with.”
For 45 minutes, though, Butler played with an unerringly amount of confidence, interspersed with just enough desperation to impale the Hoosiers off their game. This was the Sweet 16 in March for Butler, who is not a program in need of a defining victory, but rather one looking to make a statement: Butler is back.
And now everyone knows it.
It would be facetious to pretend this came down to just the X’s and O’s. Many will use the inkling of evidence that Brad Stevens had outcoached Tom Crean from start to finish to justify the loss.
While this may cajole the tidbit of acrimonious pro-Stevens Hoosier fans to voice their disapproval for Crean, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
After the fact, a lot was made out of Crean’s decision to leave Cody Zeller out of the final defensive play in overtime. A play that saw Butler guard Alex Barlow, against a small-ball Hoosier lineup, scoop in a turnaround layup in the paint.
I cannot jump inside Crean’s mind and tell you exactly why Zeller was not on the floor. Maybe Zeller’s presence prevents the bucket, maybe it doesn’t.
What I do know is that Zeller was not having his best game defensively. He was often the victim of a chaotic Butler offense that frequently forced him out of position, with no help and away from the basket. Crean stuck to his best man-to-man lineup that got the Hoosiers back in the game.
“We were playing offense-defense and that’s what Coach Crean thought was best,” Zeller said. “We do a lot of that `late-game situation’ in practice, so I wasn’t really surprised.”
It didn’t work, but is that a reason to call for Crean’s head?
IU couldn’t capitalize on many of Butler’s 18 turnovers and overwhelming foul trouble. In a critical stretch in the 2nd half, the Hoosiers blew an opportunity to turn a five point lead into a comfortable double digit lead by missing free throws, committing errant turnovers and settling for contested jumpers.
“The bottom line for us is that we didn’t rebound the ball well enough today,” Crean said. “Our communication defensively was good but it was sporadic and it didn’t cut it in crunch time.”
At the same time, Butler was able to revitalize itself by capitalizing off IU’s missed opportunities. If there is one thing Butler has taught us over the last few years, isn’t it clearly: don’t give them second chances! Just ask the Florida Gators, who would have surely been playing in the Final Four two years ago had they been able to put Butler away when they had the chance. And they had many.
Despite the rhetoric, and once again overmatched and undersized, Butler was able to score more points in the paint – 42-32 – limit IU to 24 points on 18 turnovers, score more second-chance points – 27-17 – and limit the run-and-gun Hoosiers to 10 fast break points.
These are not favorable numbers for the Hoosiers. In fact, any team that loses these battles would be hard-pressed for a victory, so it should be no surprise that Butler eked this one out, as they have a habit of doing.
Fandom has to hurt for the joy to be most fulfilling — you have to care, you have to risk suffering — and on Saturday, Hoosier nation got its first taste of what’s to come.
Undoubtedly though, as we send out text messages with a million exclamations – trying to fix the problems with a million explanations – Crean and the Hoosiers will methodically go back to work today, and many, many times over the duration of winter break.
In fact, it’s likely that we will see some of the best basketball out of the Hoosiers all year heading into Big Ten play.
“Hopefully we will learn from that and I’m excited about getting back to practice,” Crean said. “I’m excited about the rebounding drills we are going to do even though I’m not sure there are many people who are going to share my excitement about that because right now that’s an area that we really need to prove ourselves.”
Starting today there are no rules.
Is there practice today? Probably two or three times. Film sessions? Several. Rebounding drills? Let’s not even get into that.
The Hoosiers have three warm-up games before Big Ten play commences on New Years Eve when they travel to face Iowa. You had better believe Tom Crean will have them well prepared.
With one loss to their name, the Hoosiers once again have something to prove.
Because now we know, it’s a lot harder when you have everything to lose.