Becky’s and my pilgrimage to Hinkle Fieldhouse for yesterday’s BracketBusters matchup between Butler and Southern Illinois was an adventure from the start. It was snowing when we left South Bend around 10:00 AM — nothing compared to the recent blizzard or the lake-effect near-whiteouts, but enough to make the roads slick — and the light snowfall continued all the way to Indianapolis, making our trek down Route 31 decidedly more interesting. Becky was behind the wheel, and experienced winter driver though she is, she definitely found the trip more stressful than usual.
The real drama began, though, when we got to the area near Hinkle around 3:00 PM, an hour before game time. We waited for maybe 10 minutes in a long line of cars heading toward the fieldhouse parking lot, only to be told by a uniformed officer that the lot was reserved for prepaid patrons, and that we could park “anywhere on campus or in the neighborhood.” Easier said than done, as it turned out.
Indy was hit significantly harder than South Bend by the recent blizzard, and the snow crews down there have a significantly harder time dealing with it, as they aren’t accustomed to that sort of snowfall. Becky’s aunt and uncle, longtime Indy residents with whom we stayed last night, called it a once-in-25-years event. And with little or no melting since the blizzard hit, and grossly inadequate plowing, many streets and parking lots are still in very rough shape. As a result, the parking situation in the neighborhood around Hinkle was quite forbidding. Becky’s front-wheel-drive Camry isn’t exactly equipped to trudge through snow banks along the edge of local side streets, so we decided to head into campus searching for a spot. Of course, we were joined in this endeavour by a few hundred of our closest friends; hosting the marquee game of a made-for-TV national sports extravaganza is a bit problematic when much of the street parking on which your stadium normally depends is rendered off-limits by a blizzard.
After searching in vain for maybe 20 minutes, Becky — getting a little desperate as game time creeped closer — decided to take a crack at pulling into an unplowed spot in a student parking lot. Bad idea. About a third of the way into the spot, the car stopped moving and the wheels started spinning. She put the car into reverse and tried to back out. More spinning. “You’re going to have to get out and push,” she told me. Now, dear readers, you may not be aware of this, but my physical build is not exactly what most people would describe as “buff.” :) Nevertheless, I did my best to push the car backwards as Becky kicked it in reverse and hit the gas. But the wheels just kept spinning.
Enter two bubbly college-age girls who had been looking for a spot in the same lot, bounding out of their car and declaring, “Do you need help? We have shovels!” And indeed, each girl had a snow shovel in hand. One of them asked us, “Do you guys get snow like this in Illinois?” Only later did I fully grasp the implications of this question: these were Butler students who thought we were SIU fans, presumably having driven in from Carbondale, rather than relatively neutral observers from South Bend. And yet they were helping us out anyway. It may be a dog-eat-dog world, but it seems Bulldogs can play nice with Salukis.
Anyway, we gratefully accepted their offer of help and tried to dig out the tires. But still no luck. No matter how much we dug and then pushed, the car wouldn’t budge. Finally, a large gentleman in a Colts jersey showed up, and with the added force of his help pushing the car, we were able to get the darn thing out of the deep snow and back to the plowed surface where it had traction again. We thanked them profusely for their help, and as they walked away, I asked (somewhat stupidly), “Hey, are you guys for Butler or Southern Illinois?” They replied enthuastically and in unison, “Butler!!” To which I responded, “Hey, well, I think we have to root for Butler now.”
It took a while, but we finally found a spot — not on campus after all, but in the neighborhood, about 10 blocks from the fieldhouse — and started trudging through the snow toward our destination. On our way there, we passed another car being pushed out of the snow by a helpful group of a half-dozen or so apparent strangers. Also en route, we followed a large group of fellow street parkers up a well-trodden path directly over the top of a large snowbank on the edge of the parking lot.
So when SI’s Luke Winn describes Hinkle on Saturday as a “basketball oasis in the middle of a Midwestern blizzard” and ESPN’s Kyle Whelliston says “10,827 fans braved an Indianapolis snowstorm” to watch the game, they’re not lying… though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we braved the lingering aftereffects of a blizzard that came and went over a week ago, worsened by the minor inconvenience of ongoing light snowfall.
Anyway, we finally arrived at Hinkle Fieldhouse at around 3:40 PM…
…and that’s where this post stops. I’ll talk about the actual experience of attending the game in “Part II.”
After getting stuck in the snow and rescued by a trio of Butler fans, then having to brave the cold in an unexpectedly long walk from our eventual parking spot, just getting inside Hinkle Fieldhouse was a relief. But it soon became apparent that this was much more than just a warm building, and for that matter, much more than just a basketball arena. There was something special about this place, and there was going to be something special about this game.
Hinkle Fieldhouse veritably oozes history. According to Wikipedia, it was built in 1928, and was the largest basketball arena in the United States until the late 1950s. For decades, it hosted the Indiana state high-school basketball championships, and it’s where the climactic game of the movie Hoosiers was filmed — and where the actual game on which the movie was based took place. And of course, it’s where the Butler Bulldogs, who have a pretty respectable recent history themselves, play all their home games.
But Hinkle had never before played host to a matchup between two ranked teams, and had rarely if ever seen the sort of national attention that was descending upon it as gametime approached Saturday afternoon. And you could sense it in the air, somehow. It felt like exactly what it was: a national spotlight of unprecedented intensity focusing on a venue that had never really seen anything like this before, but was very much up to the challenge. Luke Winn described the scene well:
The atmosphere was nothing short of idyllic, as fans packed a 80-year-old basketball oasis in the middle of a Midwestern blizzard. They were standing in the balconies, which were adorned with advertising for establishments as Ray’s Trash Service and Hillyard: 1st in gym floor finishes. The sun poured in through the massive fieldhouse windows on the East side, illuminating the crowd, which was predominantly blue, but speckled with maroon pockets of boisterous Salukis fans.
Even in defeat, Butler coach Todd Lickliter appreciated the majesty of his surroundings: “Having this game created an atmosphere that was incredible. When you saw this crowd, when you saw the environment, when you felt it, you got to feel Hinkle Fieldhouse the way Hinkle should be. And you got to see it on national TV.”
Not just “the way Hinkle should be,” I’d add, but the way college basketball should be. Of course, you have to understand my perspective: most of the college basketball games I’ve seen in person have been at either the Sports Arena or the Joyce Center, both of which have all the disadvantages of an oldish facility without an ounce of Hinkle’s charm, and the others have been at soulless corporate venues like the Staples Center (Pac-10 Tournament), America West Arena (NCAA Phoenix Regional) and the Savvis Center (MVC Tournament). Although I grew up a UConn fan, I’ve never attended a game at Gampel Pavillion, and I certainly haven’t been to the sport’s legendary venues like Cameron Indoor, Assembly Hall, Allen Fieldhouse, etc. So the idyllic scene and electric atmosphere at Hinkle Fieldhouse were a revelation for me. Yeah, I’ve seen exciting games before, and yeah, they’ve involved teams that I cared more about. But this… this was college basketball.
The other thing that was a revelation was just how good our seats really were. I mean, I knew they were in the front row, right behind one of team’s benches — really, it was the availability of those seats on Ticketmaster, for just $25 each, that convinced me to buy tickets back in November to this random game between Butler and a then-unnamed opponent — but still, having never sat anywhere near that close before (well, we sat in the second row at a sparsely attended USC women’s basketball game once, but that’s totally not the same thing), you kind of have to see it to believe it. It was especially fun to see Becky’s reaction when she realized how close we were sitting. She was really excited.
This is a camera-nerd’s way of expressing the thought, but: you know you’re close to the action when you can take a flash picture of A.J. Graves standing near his team’s bench, and your flash actually works really well, instead of just ineffectually wasting battery power, like flashes at sporting events usually do.
Oh yeah, did I mention that A.J. Graves, one of the best mid-major players in the country — hell, you can drop the “mid-major” label and that statement is still true; he’s a Wooden Award finalist, after all — was standing a few feet away from us? Pretty cool. Yeah, we had good seats. :)
Speaking of our seats… I mentioned previously that ESPN.com correspondent Kyle Whelliston, whom I know through our respective blogs, had made little “reserved for” signs and placed them on our seats before we got there. (I had told him where we were sitting, so that we could meet up.) Here’s a closer look at those signs:
The image on Becky’s sign of a “thought” going into a trash can is, of course, a reference to her blog, the Valkyrie of Discarded Thought. Heh. Anyway, the signs were a hoot, and meeting Kyle — which we did a few minutes after arriving — was a thrill. He’s a great guy, an awesome writer, and the absolute authority on mid-major basketball. If you’re a college basketball fan and you haven’t poked around his website, MidMajority.com, you gotta check it out; in addition to the blog, the archived 100 Games Project, and various other features, he’s got probably the best statistical database around. (All the teams and games are in there, not just mid-majors.) And if I didn’t like him for all those reasons, he sealed the deal two years ago when he paid me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received as a blogger:
I’ve been an on-and-off blogger for four years now, and your site is everything that’s good about the format: clear writing, avalanche-like updates, guest posters, a boisterous comment community…and an absence of snarkiness and bitterness. Thousands of bloggers have failed to make themselves interesting enough to cause virtual strangers give a hoot about their lives, but you pull it off effortlessly. You’re a class act.
Flattery will get you everywhere, and in Kyle’s case, it got him a permanent place in my blogroll. :) Anyway, back to Saturday. He came over and said hello shortly before the game (and predicted a 5-point Butler win, which I will now proceed to publicly embarrass him for predicting… muahaha). Naturally, since nothing happens in my life unless there’s a picture of it, we took a picture:
After taking the picture, Becky said something to Kyle along the lines of, “Now you’ll be immortalized on Brendan’s blog.” I responded to the effect that clearly, the ESPN.com archive hadn’t immortalized him, but this would do the trick: “Just watch, once you’re on BrendanLoy.com, your career is really going to skyrocket.” ;)
Kyle is officially the third “blog-only” friend I’ve met in real life — the second at a basketball game. The first was “isuquinndog,” a.k.a. Mike Quinn, whom I met last March at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis (where, coincidentally, I bought that shirt). The second was “DrawingDead,” a.k.a. Jay Johnson, whom I met in December in Knoxville — and will be seeing a lot more of in the near future.
Anyway… enough about Kyle Whelliston, and on to the game.
Actually, I think I’ll end this post, and talk about the game in a new post, “Part III,” a little later. I think that’ll be the final part of this series of posts. Stay tuned.
[NOTE: You can read all three “BracketBusters Experience” posts, from start to finish, here.]
Actually, before I start talking about the game itself, here’s a nifty pregame video — which I should have included in “Part II,” but I didn’t think of it — to set the scene. First you hear the Salukis cheering section chanting “S-I-U” as their team takes the floor, but they’re quickly drowned out by Butler fans’ boos… which are in turn quickly replaced by wild cheers as the Bulldogs enter the arena. And then comes a clip of the Butler player introductions.
Really, though, the video doesn’t do it justice. As Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star wrote:
Being at Hinkle on Saturday was not a job, really; it was an honor. The place was hot, old Boston Garden hot, and it was hopping, filled to the top with Butler’s first sellout since 2003. There was an undeniable Cameron Indoor Stadium feel to the place, except for all the visiting team’s fans filling the corner of the old barn.
The absolutely electric atmosphere in that place is the biggest reason why I ended up “switching sides” and rooting for Butler (having arrived with my loyalties split maybe 55% to 45% for SIU). Early in the game, I was torn about who to root for, but I realized that if it came down to a final possession and Butler was going for the win, there was no way I wouldn’t root for the result that would cause the “Dawg Pound” at Hinkle Fieldhouse to go completely crazy… because that would just be so awesome. So, about midway through the first half (with the Bulldogs trailing by 6 points or so), I decided to jump on the Butler bandwagon right then and there.
Anyway… coming in, my fear was that the game would be so defense-oriented as to be painful to watch. Kyle Whelliston had predicted “the best 35-33 game ever,” and Andy Glockner had mused that the matchup might induce comas in casual viewers. But it quickly became apparent that those fears were exaggerated. These teams were, as advertised, very good at playing defense — it was, as SIU star Jamaal Tatum told SI’s Luke Winn, “the blue-collar matchup in college basketball” — but they also knew how to score points, even against the other’s suffocating “D.”
Besides, given the setting, the game almost couldn’t help being exciting. The slightest momentum shift in Butler’s favor sent the crowd into a frenzy, and the slightest shift in the other direction produced a mighty roar from the sizeable SIU cheering section. Here a video clip where you can get a sense of the seesawing momentum late in the first half:
Unfortunately, in the second half, the referees became an uncomfortably large part of the story, calling an extremely close game with tit-for-tat ticky-tack fouls on both ends of the floor. It was even-handed, IMHO, but it was disruptive to the flow of the game, and honestly, resulted in more points than probably should have been scored, since good, disruptive defense would often result in a foul being called.
One of the more memorable officiating moments was an absolutely horrible foul call on a clean block by Butler’s Mike Campbell with 7:01 to go, disrupting an 8-1 Butler run that had cut SIU’s lead to 49-47. The officials obviously realized their mistake, as they promptly did a classic “make-up call” on the next Butler possession, but the damage was done: the Bulldogs lost their momentum, and SIU started slowly rebuilding its lead.
But it was the general whistle-happiness, more than any individual call, that negatively impacted the game. And I’m not just saying that because I was rooting for Butler and the home crowd was booing every call that went against the Bulldogs. Neutral observers noticed, too. Sports reporters rarely mention the officiating in their articles unless there’s some specific controversial call late in the game, but in this case, several columnists mentioned the referees’ overall frustrating pattern in their write-ups. For example, the Star’s Kravitz wrote, “The second half got bogged down by a trio of officials who called a foul on every possession, whistling both teams a total of 34 times in the second half.” Kravitz added that “the game didn’t ultimately suffer that much from it,” but Kyle Whelliston didn’t seem so sure of that:
The real difference in a contest that lasted nearly 2Ã‚Â½ 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.
More on what Lickliter said in a second, but first, here’s a video of a pretty typical second-half possession: an entertaining standoff between the offense and defense, followed by a whistle.
I’m not criticizing that particular call, but in general, I wish the refs had let ‘em play more. And so, I’m sure, did Butler star A.J. Graves, who — as if feeling ill and vomiting in the first half wasn’t bad enough — picked up his fourth and fifth fouls late in the game on a pair of ticky-tack calls, and was forced to sit out the final minutes as Butler almost came back to win. I wasn’t videotaping when he fouled out, but here’s the crowd and bench reaction to his fourth foul:
Now, I’d love to blame this all on the refs, but I actually need to take a moment here to criticize Butler’s coach. I’m certainly not suggesting that he’s a bad coach generally, but his handling of the second-half officiating really left something to be desired, as the Bulldogs simply did not adequately adjust to the way the game was being called. This was particularly evident on Graves’s last foul.
To set the scene: With 2:44 remaining, Graves hit two free throws (he’s virtually automatic from the line, having missed five FTs all year) to cut Southern Illinois’ lead to 62-56. Now the Bulldogs needed a defensive stop or, ideally, a turnover. They decided to pressure the ball, which makes a lot of sense, but was obviously risky because of those whistle-happy refs. What made it particularly risky was that Graves, the star player whom Butler was obviously going to want on the floor in the game’s final moments, was the one pressuring the ball, even though he already had four fouls. As I watched him step up his agressive defense on SIU’s Jamaal Tatum, 45 feet from the basket, I felt sort of like how you feel in that split-second when you realize a beverage is about to spill, but you can’t do anything about it. I thought to myself, “Oh no, he’s going to get called for a foul!” Not that he necessarily deserved it, but that was just how the refs were calling the game. And, sure enough, a half-second later, the ref blew the whistle. Graves was done.
My first question for Coach Lickliter, if I had a seat at the postgame press conference, would have been: Why on earth did you have Graves pressuring the ball on that possession? You knew the refs were calling a very close game, so you had to know he was taking a serious risk of drawing his fifth foul, even just by playing run-of-the-mill aggressive pressure defense and trying to force a turnover. Obviously you needed to put pressure on SIU in that situation, but surely someone else on the team could have played that role, so that Graves could stay in the game and be ready when you needed him to score a potential game-winning basket down the stretch!
But alas, Graves drew the assignment, Tatum drew the foul, and it was all over for Butler’s star. He spent the rest of the game a few feet away from Becky and me, watching from the bench.
Of course, the Bulldogs didn’t just roll over when Graves fouled out. In fact, to their great credit, they managed to mount a real attempt at a last-minute comeback, even though Graves’s absence presumably made it easier for SIU’s defenders to focus on the Bulldogs’ other shooters. (They — possibly in combination with the flu — had been very effective at bottling up Graves all night, holding him to 1-for-8 shooting.)
The crucial moment came between in a 12-second stretch with less than two minutes left. At 1:41, with the Salukis up 63-57, SIU’s Bryan Mullins had a three-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer rim out; if it had gone in, that probably effectively ends the game right there. Butler’s Mike Green grabbed the rebound, the Bulldogs quickly moved it up the floor, and Brandon Crone hit a three-pointer with 1:29 remaining, cutting Southern Illinois’s lead to 63-60. The crowd went wild. We had ourselves a ballgame!
Southern Illinois hit a pair of foul shots to get the lead up to 65-60, but Butler answered with two FTs of its own to cut it back to 65-62 — and then the Bulldogs almost forced a turnover on the inbounds pass, which would have given them the ball with 20 seconds left in a one-possession game. But the ref ruled that Green fouled Tatum an instant before Tatum lost the ball out-of-bounds. You can watch that dramatic sequence here:
Tatum sank both free throws to stretch the lead back to 67-62. A few more tit-for-tat free throws later, the game was over; the Bulldogs never did get the ball in their hands with a deficit three points or less in the closing seconds. The final score was 68-64.
Here’s a photo of the handshake line after the game; the player hunched over, supported by a teammate, is Green, who moments earlier had collapsed to the floor after losing the ball in the final seconds and being unable to get off a shot.
This game, the first in Hinkle’s long history in which Butler and its opponent were both nationally ranked, was not as good as advertised.
It was better.
Southern Illinois won, and so did college basketball. Throughout the country, ESPN2 viewers saw two teams that have a chance of making a mess of millions of brackets come NCAA Tournament time.
When Lickliter came to the postgame news conference, he was hard-pressed to find the right words. Then the disappointment temporarily gave way to sheer appreciation. He had been part of something pretty special.
“We saw two top-20 teams compete for 40 minutes, and we saw guys make plays that were terrific,” he said. “I just can’t imagine there’s been a harder fought, better game throughout the course of this season. Two really nice teams. Two teams that share the ball. Two teams that guard.
“It’s difficult. I guess it tests you. But I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed about. They were a little better than us. I sure would like to see them again.”
“Maybe in Atlanta (at the Final Four),” Lickliter said, smiling. “That would be nice.”
Wouldn’t it, though?
Anyway, Becky and I had a great time. (Pay no attention to the Missouri Valley Conference shirt in the photo below; I was rooting for Butler by the time this picture was taken. Hehe.)
Unlike the Missouri Valley tournament last March, which was fun in spite of the ugly basketball being played (those teams were just absolutely exhausted from all the regular-season battles, and they played like it), this was an afternoon of hoops where we could genuinely enjoy the quality of play, on both sides of the ball.
There’s one definite similarity to the MVC tourney, though: just like I felt a sense of “ownership” when Bradley and Wichita State made Sweet 16 runs last year after we saw them play in Arch Madness, you can bet I’ll be rooting especially hard for the Salukis and Bulldogs next month. Well, unless they come up against USC, Notre Dame or Gonzaga, of course. :)
Anyway… you can view my full gallery of photos here. Here are a few particularly notable ones that I didn’t manage to work into this or either of the posts. In the first one, note ESPN’s Rick Majerus in the background. (That’s Coach Lickliter adjusting his tie in the foreground.)
UPDATE: You can read all three “BracketBusters Experience” posts, all at once, here.