Throwback game fits setting of underdog arena
INDIANAPOLIS -- David bonked Goliath with a rock, and the original basketball Cinderella milked the clock. When Bobby Plump hit the game-winning jumper to upset Muncie 32-30 in that 1954 Indiana state high school championship that inspired the movie "Hoosiers", tiny Milan High took 41 seconds off the Hinkle Fieldhouse game timer setting up the play.
Since the advent of the shot clock, you just can't do things like that. But 2007's two most grown-up Davids, the Horizon League's Butler (ESPN/USA Today No. 12) and Southern Illinois of the MVC (No. 15), would be perfectly comfortable living back in the 1950's without the hurry-up hassle of a 35-second time limit. Both old-school squads have lulled basketball Goliaths to sleep by using as much of its allotted time as possible -- the Bulldogs came into the game the seventh-slowest team in the nation, averaging 61.0 possessions per 40 minutes (the national median is 68), and the visiting Salukis were the 13th slowest at 61.8.
So when both mid-major powers collided Saturday in the premier game of ESPNU's BracketBusters slate, SIU's narrow 68-64 victory was as slow, gritty and punishing a game as one might expect from two half-court-heavy squads. Our network's center court cameraman won't be able to file a whiplash-insurance claim: neither team scored a single fast-break basket all afternoon, and SIU outscored Butler 4-2 in transition. The Salukis had the ball 60 times, and the Bulldogs 57 -- in other terms, the average possession used 20 shot-clock seconds.
The real difference in a contest that lasted nearly 2½ hours was what happened when time stopped altogether. With all the tooth-and-nail physical play around the paint, whistles were abundant, and SIU outpaced its hosts 27-19 in made free throws. One of the key rules of the BracketBusters format is that the visiting conference brings its officials (to counter home-court advantage), but Butler head coach Todd Lickliter was diplomatic about the 26 fouls the Missouri Valley officiating crew called against his team, a regulation game season-high.
"I thought that in the second half, both teams sensed that they were going to call on the drive and not call handchecks," Lickliter said. "I wish we'd had driven a little more. They drove."
And nobody drove more often or effectively than senior Saluki guard Jamaal Tatum, who slashed and shot his way to 20 points, eight of which came off 11 free-throw attempts. SIU's leading point producer (14.3 ppg) led all scorers and paced a maroon-clad trio of three double-figure contributors: 6-foot-7 junior forward Matt Shaw was a perfect 4-for-4 from the field on the way to 15 points, and flashy guard Tony Young added 11, including two first-half 3-pointers that ignited SIU runs. This is a team that's used defense as a calling card in recent years, but now sports an offense that's increased its scoring output by three points per game ( 63.0 to 60.0) since last year's MVC tourney champion squad.
"As we continue to build as a team, we've gotten better on both sides of the ball," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "We really grinded them out offensively with our motion. I thought we wore them down on that side of the ball, we really made them chase us."
But SIU's signature stingy defense was on display as well in a game chock-full of SIU mini-breakways and Butler fightbacks. After a made Southern Illinois shot, Butler was usually faced with intense pressure defense, the relentlessness of which had not been seen by Lickliter and his charges.
"[The pressure defense was] never too bad on me during the game, I'm standing over there [on the sidelines]," joked Lickliter. "They really defended well, and they were so physical the way they defended. But that was the greatest pressure we faced all year, and we had only six turnovers."
Butler, the best ball-control team in the nation with 9.6 turnovers per game, was below its cough-up average but weren't able to fully capitalize on the extra possessions, and ended up shooting a lackluster 40.9 percent. A big reason for that was the disappointing play of Butler's senior guard A.J. Graves, who had been averaging a team-leading 17.4 ppg. On this day, he shot just 1-for-8 from the floor.
"You're looking at one stat," Lickliter said in defense of his star player, who fouled out after 36 minutes. "He handled the ball, he had four assists."
In terms of busting brackets, both teams shouldn't have too much trouble breaking through the Selection Committee's door on March 11 -- SIU is 13-3 to lead the rough and tough Missouri Valley (23-5 overall), and Butler's 24-4 record includes a Preseason NIT championship and giant nonconference wins against Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Notre Dame. This game will likely affect NCAA Tournament seeding more than anything, but both coaches are trying to stay in a one-bid conference mindset.
"We have conference games left, and our No. 1 goal is to win our conference," said Lowery. "That's the goal we've set for our seniors, to make sure our seniors go out with a conference championship. Seeding, we'll worry about that on Selection Sunday, and for now we'll let the national guys on ESPN worry about where we should be go. We'll just keep doing what we do."
"We've played five teams in the Top 50, and we've been pretty successful. If we're in it, we like our chances," said Lickliter. "But we've got to get in, we're focused on winning a conference championship. At the end of that, if we're successful, there's the greatest sporting event in the world. We'd love to be a part of that, but we can't cross that bridge right now."
But Lickliter, who earlier this week came out criticizing the BracketBusters format for pitting upwardly-mobile mid-majors against each other, couldn't deny the magic that the event created there at ancient Hinkle Fieldhouse. A total of 10,827 fans braved an Indianapolis snowstorm to watch two nationally ranked teams warm up the old gym with a vigorous battle's heat. If you took away the shot clock, the 3-point line and the tattoos on the SIU players' arms, you could have sworn that Hinkle had thrown back to Bobby Plump's era.
"Having this game created a great atmosphere," Lickliter said. "You saw this crowd, and you saw the environment, and you got to experience the feeling of Hinkle Fieldhouse, and how Hinkle Fieldhouse should be, and on national television, no less. If [BracketBusters] is what it takes to create that, we'll deal with the conference stuff afterwards."
"It was a great crowd," echoed SIU's Young. "You want to go into hostile environments with that kind of an atmosphere. It hypes you up. You can feel the crowd get into it and as a team we feed off that."
Enough to lift the Salukis to a nationally-televised road win over a fellow ranked opponent, but the vanquished coach didn't feel as if he'd lost altogether too much.
"We played to win and obviously we're disappointed," said Lickliter. "We saw two top 20 teams compete for 40 minutes and saw guys make plays that were terrific. I can't imagine there has been a harder fought game throughout the course of the season. We don't have anything to be ashamed of."
And Butler's coach harbors thoughts of a rematch before next year's mandated return game in Carbondale, daring to dream of meeting his BracketBusters foes for another slowdown throwdown next month.
"I'd like to see them again, maybe in Atlanta," Lickliter said with a smile. "That might be fun."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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