IU-Butler has makings of modern rivalry

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
4:50
PM ET
Indiana and Purdue are each other's once and forever rivals. They're Batman and the Joker, depending on which side of the state you live in; they've met twice a year since 1901, and they are destined to do this forever.

The Butler Bulldogs could never replace, or equal, the antipathy Indiana fans feel for Purdue, or vice versa. But watching Saturday's insanity play out from high above the court, I could see Indiana's immense fan base parry the cheers and raucous work of Butler's own hardly-small fan section. As I watched a Butler team play as though it knew it had every right to beat the No. 1 team in the country, and as I watched Brad Stevens not only get the best of Tom Crean but cooly sell his players and program after the fact, I couldn't help but think, Wait a second — we need to do this every season.

Indiana may have found its next new rival just 45 minutes up the road.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsIf Stevens can first sell his veterans on his program and approach, he's got valuable allies on his side.
For much of the schools' history, this would have been a silly notion. Butler was a tiny little thing, a Horizon League novelty with that cool gym from the tape-measure last scene in "Hoosiers." When Bob Knight's program met with the Bulldogs, the outcome was typically delivered in swift and mostly painless fashion.

You don't need me to tell you how much things have changed. Butler is no longer even in the Horizon League — it is now a member of the more well-heeled Atlantic 10, and could very well become a member of the new Catholic 7 Big East breakoff party, which would make the Bulldogs something close to a high-major program, presumably with the finances to back it up. Even if that doesn't happen, the Atlantic 10 remains a boost.

There is the natural geography, of course, which is always good for some hatred — Butler fans and IU fans sit in close enough proximity to probably drive each other nuts on Mondays like today. As it should be.

But more than anything, if this is a budding rivalry, it is so because it seems to verge on the personal. Consider the past three seasons. In 2010 and 2011, as Stevens led Butler teams to back-to-back Final Fours, Indiana was still fighting its way out of the post-Kelvin Sampson hole, winning 10 and 12 games, respectively. IU fans began to murmur — for some, it was an outright shout — that maybe Crean wasn't the man for the job, that IU needed to hire Stevens yesterday, that here was the guy they were looking for all along.

You could hardly blame them. Stevens is not only already one of the best coaches in the game, with one of its most well-respected programs. He is also from Zionsville, Ind. He fell in love with basketball attending IU games. He went to college in the state. He does things — cliche-but-true alert — the right way. He has flatly turned down every job offer thrown his way in the past three years, many of which would have made him a wealthy man. Maybe he's holding out for the IU job, message board types would write. Could Brad Stevens come to Indiana? chatters would ask, not the least bit in jest, even when it was still way too early to pass judgment on Crean's tenure.

Had Crean had another 12-win season in 2012, maybe we would have gotten an answer. Instead he unleashed Cody Zeller, led the Hoosiers to massive symbolic wins over Kentucky and Ohio State, and took a brilliant offensive team back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002.

Crean quieted any Stevens longing last season. But it's hard to imagine a man so intensely competitive, who is just now marshaling ownership over one of college basketball's great jobs, not keeping a wary eye fixed northward.

The subtext was certainly there Saturday. Both coaches traded jabs with referees and each other during the game -- Brian Hamilton's SI.com special captured some of the money quotes:
This was taut competition, not least for the men pacing the sideline, the animation of Stevens and Indiana coach Tom Crean underscoring the grind. When the Hoosiers' irreplaceable star, Cody Zeller, drove hard on the baseline and got body-checked in the air for his efforts, Stevens grinned and applauded the hard foul from his bench. On the other end, Crean was not amused.
"Oh, yeah, you like that?" he bellowed. "Make sure they make a play on the ball!"

On Saturday, when unlikely star Alex Barlow was explaining the final play to reporters, Stevens calmly went out of his way to note what many Indiana fans had immediately screamed after the game: Crean had taken Zeller off the floor. When Crean was asked about this decision in the post game, his impatience was poorly concealed (you can see his reaction at the 2:40 mark here), as if he had anticipated the question and was preemptively sick of it. There were other questions, like why Indiana didn't try its 1-2-2 press earlier in the game, if only to change the pace, and why the Hoosiers had overplayed on the perimeter even as Butler outworked them for offensive rebounds and cutbacks.

The consensus among Indiana fans, and many in the media room, was clear: Crean had been outcoached.

All of which is ephemeral and temporary, of course. It was 40 minutes in December. Crean isn't going anywhere. His program is a beast, a newly well-oiled recruiting machine; he will likely be at Indiana for exactly as long as he'd like. Besides, duh: He's a really good coach. For his part, Stevens seems just as determined to prove that Butler isn't a novelty anymore, regardless of conference — that every now and then, new college basketball powers do rise, and that his is here to stay.

Still, when you combine that ascendance and all of the natural factors that make this a potential rivalry with that just-below-the-surface coaching intrigue — the notion (true or not) that for Crean every game against the coolly smiling Stevens is some kind of unspoken popular-consciousness proving ground — well, sure, it may never be Indiana-Purdue. But it does sound like a game we need to see every year. Who's with me?

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