Barlow is Butler's unlikely hero
INDIANAPOLIS -- The game meets you halfway.
The game says that if you live your summers in the gym, it will return the favor in March. If you spend your evenings among the hardwood echoes, figuring out the things you do well and seeking to perfect them, those things will be there when you need them most.
The game says that if you become the kind of person about whom the first thing any of his teammates can say is "he works hard," you won't even notice the fatigue in your legs when the game is tied with six seconds left in overtime. You won't remember you're a walk-on, the last person anyone would expect to do what you're about to do. You won't remember you're playing the No. 1 team in the country and you have the ball with a chance to win the game. You won't think about what happens if you miss.
You'll just take the shot. And it'll bounce and bounce and then roll in, just like it has thousands of times before. You got it that far. The game can take the rest from there.
That is the story of Alex Barlow, Butler's unlikely last-second hero of Saturday's 88-86 upset win over No. 1 Indiana -- Butler's first-ever regular-season win over the No. 1 team in the country.
"You grow up in your backyard with your hoop, dreaming of playing against the No. 1 team, last second shot, shooting it," Barlow said. "But not in my wildest dreams did I think it would be a reality."
In many ways, Barlow's story is also the story of the Butler Bulldogs under Brad Stevens, which keep finding even more remarkable ways to thrill and baffle us -- and shame every sports-movie screenwriter in Hollywood -- with their patented Butler Way.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs spent the entire first half avoiding one of Indiana's patented scoring sprees. Indiana defensive specialist Victor Oladipo swarmed Butler guard Rotnei Clarke everywhere on the floor, intentionally ignoring the ball in favor of staring at Clarke's chest. The Bulldogs didn't shoot well, and they turned it over often. When IU got on the break, the game looked like it could crack open at any time.
But Butler never allowed it to happen. The Bulldogs got stops when they needed them, sure, but more than anything, they got rebounds. Some came on what Indiana coach Tom Crean called "50-50 bounces," the kind where the ball caroms just so. This was true. But plenty of others came thanks to positioning -- particularly that of senior forward Andrew Smith, once an awkward freshman who easily won the physical matchup with preseason player of the year Cody Zeller. Smith grabbed nine rebounds, and Roosevelt Jones grabbed 12 (to go along with 16 points, seven assists and two blocks). Butler not only kept the game from getting out of hand, but by the second half, the Bulldogs had taken control of it.
The rest of the game was the best -- or at least the most exciting -- basketball of the season. In front of a rabid crowd, both teams traded blows. Butler went up seven; Indiana came back. Butler went up seven again; Indiana came back.
On the penultimate possession of the game, down by three, Indiana freshman Yogi Ferrell -- hardly the Hoosiers' most accomplished outside shooter -- took a return pass from Cody Zeller and nailed the game-tying 3.
By then, Butler's fate appeared inevitable. Smith and Jones had fouled out in the final minutes of regulation, and the Bulldogs lacked the frontcourt depth to replace them. Winger Erik Fromm fell victim to foul trouble in overtime, and suddenly three of Butler's best players on the day were all stuck watching from the sideline. Against the No. 1 team in the country. In overtime.
How does Indiana not win that game?
"We were just screaming at each other," Clarke said. "Just telling each other, 'Gut it out, gut it out.'"
"Our philosophy is 'next man in,'" Smith said. "We know everyone on this team is capable of being out there when the game is on the line. We didn't look down at all."
Spoiler alert: Butler gutted it out. The game stayed tight. And that's when Barlow got his shot.
At first, Barlow's game winner looked like a genius design by Stevens. His last set had managed to get Indiana's defense so spaced out that it couldn't help point guard Jordan Hulls -- who played well but is IU's clearest defensive liability -- as he tried to marshal Barlow's penetration in the lane. Besides, who sees Alex Barlow coming?
After the game, Stevens admitted the play was merely a byproduct of a baseline-screen set he had been running all game and that Barlow's branch of the play would usually be filled by Jones. Stevens seemed pleasantly surprised Crean had swapped Zeller out of his defensive lineup on the final possession.
Crean explained that he went with a lineup that allowed every defender to switch on screens, but he was noticeably testy about it when asked by a reporter after the game. Crean said he was more preoccupied about his team's inability to clear the defensive glass and to maintain effort across all 40 (or 45) minutes.
"Our spirit wavered a little bit based on the score," Crean said. "We've got to play the same game in the spirit we made the comeback with.
"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."
The Hoosiers struggled along the front line, no doubt about it. Zeller was outplayed by Smith. Indiana left points at the free throw line, and its famous efficient, balanced offense went missing.
But it is also much too early to panic.
"You sell this like it's Chaminade and Virginia, but they're good," Crean said. "They're really good."
The Bulldogs, for their part, agreed. No one in their bouncy locker room was surprised one iota by the outcome. Or if they were, they wouldn't admit.
Then, why would they be? Stevens' teams have gotten pretty good at this -- almost as good as making Cinderella storylines part of their process.
Because for as good as Butler is, for as much as that program has accomplished in the past five years, it is impossible not to see Barlow's last-second make as the quintessential Cinderella story.
The barely recruited walk-on who grows up dreaming of beating the No. 1 team, who gets the same text from his mom, Tamie, before every game ("Have fun, play hard, kick some butt, enjoy the moment and cheer your teammates on," it invariably reads), who earned his starting spot a few weeks earlier and who suddenly lives out his dream.
You can't make it up. How do you explain that?
"Go into Hinkle [Fieldhouse] sometimes at 10 p.m., and you'll see our shooting machine and Alex in there working on floaters and jump shots," Stevens said. "A bunch of other guys are there too, but this kid lives in the gym."
"He works so hard," Clarke said. "He deserves this."
Sometimes you need a lucky roll in the last second. Sometimes you need your walk-on to make that shot at that time in that game. Sometimes you just have to do your best and hope all those hours of work paid off -- that the game will at least meet you halfway.
Sometimes it does.