Commentary

Ramblers catch youthful, vulnerable Bulldogs off guard at home

Originally Published: February 15, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- In an act of unnatural composure, Brad Stevens smiled on Sunday when he sat down to face the media after the debacle at Hinkle.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe shots didn't fall on Sunday for Brad Stevens' Bulldogs squad.

"Everything I love about basketball happened tonight," the Butler coach said. "It just didn't happen on our side."

It happened on the side of the oft-trampled Loyola Ramblers, who staggered into town on a six-game Horizon League losing streak to play the No. 15 team in the country. The gamblers dissed the Ramblers, making them a 19-point underdog in Las Vegas -- and really, even that seemed too kind.

Loyola lost to Butler by 23 at home exactly one month earlier. It lost by 24 to a very bad Valparaiso team Friday night. It had lost every game in its six-game slide by double digits.

Butler, meanwhile, was 22-2 and in possession of a 16-game winning streak in its historic gym. And the Bulldogs had plenty to play for -- a victory would have guaranteed at least a share of their third straight Horizon League title.

So this was an utter lock. Yeah, they filmed "Hoosiers" here, but there would be no miracle win for the underdog.

By 4:15 Sunday, Loyola coach Jim Whitesell began to bear an uncanny resemblance to Gene Hackman. His team won 71-67 in what has to be the biggest league upset of this turbulent college basketball season.

Just check the RPI: Butler came in No. 13, Loyola No. 219.

The collateral damage likely will be significant, both to Butler's NCAA tournament seeding and to the attractiveness of the Butler-Davidson BracketBusters matchup. Stephen Curry has a bad wheel and the Bulldogs have a bad loss. We'll see if either have gotten well by Saturday.

Though the game got dramatic at the end as Butler scrambled to come back from as many as 18 points down, the outcome was not a storybook fluke. Loyola didn't need a Jimmy Chitwood shot at the buzzer.

Everything I love about basketball happened tonight. It just didn't happen on our side.

-- Butler coach Brad Stevens

The Ramblers led uninterrupted for the final 38 minutes, 36 seconds. They got 23 points from a freshman guard, Jordan Hicks, who entered the game averaging 2.9. They got 17 points from guard Justin Cerasoli (who came in averaging 10), and 10 from Indianapolis native Marcus Thomas (who came in averaging six). They made a slew of jump shots and free throws at just the right times to stave off Butler comebacks. They got to loose balls and key rebounds at crucial moments.

They gave the beaten coach something to rhapsodize about afterward.

"Loyola played terrific," the 32-year-old Stevens said. "They made huge shots, had guys step up, answered every challenge. ... Today, they were the better team."

For years, Butler has almost always been the better team in this league. The Bulldogs had broken through the mid-major ceiling to become a fixture on the national scene, despite continuous coaching turnover.

Unless the Bulldogs collapse from this point forward, they'll make their eighth NCAA tournament appearance in the past 12 years. Hasn't mattered whether the coach was Barry Collier (three appearances, 1997, '98 and 2000) or Thad Matta (2001, his only season at the school), Todd Lickliter (2003, '07) or Stevens ('08). Butler basketball has been recession-proof.

If anything, it's only gotten better as the coaches have gotten younger. Stevens looks like he should be suiting up for intramural ball, but his record is a silly 52-7 as a head coach.

A 22-3 record this season was completely unforeseen given the loss of a stellar senior class -- in fact, Butler was picked to finish fifth in the Horizon. But starting three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior has been no deterrent to success.

"To say he's continued what Thad and Todd did is to underreport what he's done," said Collier, now the school's athletic director. "What he's done has been phenomenal."

Among non-BCS conference schools, only Gonzaga (10 straight NCAA appearances), Xavier (nine appearances in the past 11 years), Penn (seven in the past 10 years) and Utah (eight in the past 12 years) have had comparable success under multiple head coaches.

Which means Butler has done some really smart hiring of coaches capable of doing some really smart recruiting.

"It helps that the kids we're getting now have probably known nothing but Butler basketball being pretty successful," Collier said. "We're recruiting better players every year."

One of those kids is sophomore postman Matt Howard, who had offers from Purdue and Indiana but chose a place where he could play right away. Howard has started 51 games in two seasons and scored 763 points.

Jordan Hicks
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJordan Hicks' career-high 23 points helped Loyola down Butler.

"When I committed, people were doubting my decision," Howard said.

They're not anymore.

It helps to sit in a state that produces a lot of very good players who embrace the bromides of Hoosier basketball: fundamental soundness, team play and the ability to shoot the bejesus out of the basketball. Butler entered the Loyola game having outscored its opponents by 267 points from the 3-point line.

But a young team that lives by the 3 can lose by it as well, and that's what happened Sunday. Butler went 6-for-26 from 3-point range, with freshman guards Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored going a combined 0-for-9 (and just 2-for-14 overall).

That's why -- for this season at least -- Butler is vulnerable. To Horizon League opponents, the jersey says Goliath, even if the guys inside those jerseys are frightfully unseasoned.

"Every game we play, because we have a number next to our name, is a huge game," Stevens said. "They've handled it really well so far."

How will they handle the sting of this preposterously unlikely loss?

"That," Stevens said, "is the million-dollar question."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

ALSO SEE