Don’t worry, sports fans, you can still believe in the magic of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Here we were on Saturday, enjoying a much-welcomed weekend slate of big games after a week of sports absurdity. We watched No. 1 Louisville and its two national championships vs. No. 6 Syracuse and its 904-win coach, the two playing down-to-the-wire, with the Orange taking down the top-ranked Cardinals in a dramatic 70-68 victory. Despite its sloppy finish, it could surely go down as one of the games of the year.
But … it wasn’t even the game of the day. No, Louisville-Syracuse was somehow upstaged, not by a Duke-North Carolina game or another classic powerhouse matchup, but by No. 13 Butler hosting No. 8 Gonzaga in the gym from "Hoosiers."
Back and forth they went all game, Butler surviving without its best player and leading scorer, Rotnei Clarke. They traded leads in the final minute, Alex Barlow giving Butler the lead with 27 seconds left, Kelly Olynyk taking it back for Gonzaga with two free throws with only four seconds to play.
Four seconds? Plenty of time. Only Barlow caught the in-bounds pass and moved his pivot foot, drawing a whistle for a walk. Gonzaga ball. Game over, barring some sort of miracle. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
Roosevelt Jones stole Gonzaga’s in-bounds pass, took off up the floor and hit a floater in the paint at the last possible split second before the buzzer went off. The shot was good. The court was stormed. Final score: 64-63. Butler, without its top player, had beaten a top-10 team for the second time this season (having already stunned then-No. 1 Indiana back in December, 88-86 in OT).
Here's a look at the final play:
Maybe ESPN successfully brainwashed me, but kudos to the network for putting its first traveling “College GameDay” of 2013 at Hinkle Fieldhouse and giving the game its deserved hype. Butler and Gonzaga have earned it. We've progressed past the days of Billy Packer's curmudgeon angst toward those outside the establishment. College basketball is the most democratic of sports, and despite all the sappy deification of Hinkle -- the “Hoosiers” references, the gym being as much of a character in the game as the island in "Lost" -- well, it was a lot of fun, wasn't it? The only aesthetic annoyance was Gonzaga's uniform selection.
The experience of watching a game on TV from your couch theoretically shouldn’t change whether it’s played at a state-of-the-art new arena like the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville or a historic venue like Hinkle Fieldhouse, but it does. The character of the building increases the feeling of importance, and, even from a distance on TV, it’s just more fun to see a game happen at a distinct venue like Hinkle, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field or the Rose Bowl, rather than the luxurious yet sterile atmosphere of the cookie-cutter stadiums and arenas prevalent in professional football and basketball. Comfort is nice, but so is character, and character can help give an event a big-game feel, even if Duke or Kansas isn’t involved.
That big-game feel was a welcome addition to the national sports conversation. After a week filled with lies and deception and Manti Te'o fatigue, here was college basketball in all its familiar, chaotic glory. No. 9 Florida, who is playing as well as anyone in the country, embarrassed No. 16 Missouri in Gainesville. No. 4 Kansas rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to win at struggling Texas. In a packed Roundhouse, Wichita State edged No. 10 Creighton and Doug McDermott, arguably the best player in America. Oregon took control of the Pac-12 on the road at UCLA. No. 17 Michigan State beat No. 11 Ohio State by three in a battle of Big Ten heavyweights. And, as mentioned before, No. 1 Louisville dropped a home tilt against Syracuse.
It all seems to foreshadow what should be an unpredictable and crazy March. The top-ranked team has lost two weeks in a row. The entire Top 25 is in constant flux. By tournament time, seeds may hardly even matter. With no star-studded Kentucky team, 2013 appears to be a year for parity.
Given its two shocking national title game appearances, Butler has grown accustomed to that craziness. As the game took its unbelievable turn and Jones’ shot went in and the students stormed the floor, there was Butler coach Brad Stevens, barely even acknowledging what happened. He saw the shot fall, didn’t celebrate, immediately turned to his left and walked toward center court to shake hands, comfortable in the familiar magic of Hinkle.