December 15, 2012

The 5-foot-11-inch giant slayer with no scholarship and the muffled-by-a-pillow voice receives the same text message from his mother before every game. This being Butler basketball, of course he does. So Alex Barlow's phone duly buzzed Saturday hours before he waded into the din at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and he found the standard candied dictum from his Mom, Tami: Have fun. Play hard. Kick some butt. Enjoy the moment. And cheer your teammates on.

After that came the similarly compulsory pregame chat with Tom, his Dad. At some point as Barlow pounded the ball against the floor with the clock speeding toward zero in overtime, with fans of the nation's No. 1 team bathing him in vitriol, his mind unconsciously traced back to that talk. Tom Barlow had reminded his son this was another game. Ten players, two baskets, one ball. Don't get nervous, don't do too much, just play. Just be who you are.

"When I saw six seconds left," Alex Barlow said, "who I am is to go to the hoop and try to make a play."

A half-dozen dribbles led to a hopeful release which led to the ball ballerina-hopping along the rim before it fell through. And, surprise, Butler had upset top-ranked Indiana with an 88-86 overtime victory in the Crossroads Classic with multiple starters fouled out and a walk-on authoring the winning score, and really the only surprise anymore is that anyone would be surprised by any of this.

On the day the Big East's Catholic schools officially seceded and thus undoubtedly portended a different crossroads for the program to navigate, the Bulldogs went about their Butler Way: Treating tip-off like the opening bell in a bare-knuckle brawl, bruising the seemingly flawless Hoosiers and seeing how they would respond. And then when they responded, going to the bottomless trough of unassuming heros. "Such a gutty, gutty effort," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "Our guys just played really hard. It really mattered. They figured out a way."

It seemed to matter deeply to the 19,000-plus souls crammed into available space for this event. 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!"

And so it went, reflective of the game's tenor, each coach desperately trying to hoarse-collar calls. Exasperated by whistles in Zeller's favor after Roosevelt Jones picked up his fourth foul, Stevens held an extended audience with referee Mike Kitts. As Kitts trotted down toward the Indiana bench, Crean playfully played the good cop. "I don't treat you like that," the Hoosiers coach cooed, even tossing Kitts a towel to wipe down a damp spot on the floor.

Even more exasperated when center Andrew Smith picked up his fourth foul while checking Zeller, Stevens picked up his zingers. "Keep protecting him!" the Butler coach said. "Make him some more money!"

It was a grating day, but that made it Butler's kind of afternoon. The Bulldogs would collect 19 offensive rebounds for 27 second-chance points. They outscored Indiana in the paint 42-32. Butler's guards stifled Zeller's trademark run-out scores and Smith bodied up on him to jostle him off his game just enough, with Zeller tallying 18 points but shooting just 4-of-9.

"The refs let us play a little bit today. So I love it. I eat it up," said Smith, who had 12 points, nine boards and two blocks. "That's kind of the way we try to play. We have that physical mindset and we like to come into games and try to play physical. Especially right at the start. If you come out and hit them in the mouth first, you're usually going to play pretty well."

Hitting is something Crean intends to make his team intimately familiar with, very shortly. "I'm excited about the rebounding drills we're going to do," the Hoosiers coach said. "Though I'm not sure there are many people who are going to share my excitement about that, because right now that's an area (where) we really need to prove ourselves."

Still, the Hoosiers weren't without mettle. Down five with 38 seconds left in regulation, they tied it on a Yogi Ferrell 3-pointer with 6.1 ticks on the clock, the freshman from Indianapolis pointing at his chest and screaming "This is my city!" as he trotted to the bench. And Indiana rallied after back-to-back three-pointers from Butler in overtime, tying it on a Zeller score with 19.5 seconds to go.

And so the ball made its way to Barlow, who had started his third college game. Growing up, he was a year-round baseball player, a shortstop who had offers to play in college from the Ivy League and schools like Campbell and Davidson. He would inspire some interest from Duke while playing at a high school tournament in his senior year, but he told them no thanks. He'd decided to enroll at Stevens Institute.

"I really wanted to be a college basketball coach," Barlow said. "I figured that if I wanted to get into coaching, the best thing for me to do would be to walk on somewhere Division I. I felt Butler's system gave me the best fit to have a chance to play. And I felt coach Stevens was the best coach around here to learn from."

Occasionally Stevens will pause during a practice or a film session to frame a concept -- For you people who want to get into coaching, here's something to look for, he'll say -- but it was another sort of open-mindedness that drew Barlow in. "Once guys get here, it's free game to play," Stevens said. "Alex would be the first one to tell you, he was spinning a little bit last year and looked like a guy that would struggle to find time on the floor. He always had a competitive will that was extremely high. We're going to play our best players. And Alex is certainly one of them."

So it was Saturday that, in his hands, Barlow had the ball and the chance for the program's first victory over a No. 1-ranked team. Stevens called for a motion-based look featuring baseline screens and shooters popping out, with the ball-handler having the option to drive. Barlow is usually one of the screeners, or shooters. The explosive Jones is usually the point man. Here again the sophomore from Springboro, Ohio, was at once out of place, and in exactly the right place at the right time.

He backed down his defender, he lofted the ball and it danced around, and then it plunged through. Barlow ran to half-court and punched the air. Afterward, Stevens shrugged and invited everyone to Hinkle Fieldhouse at around 10 p.m. on any given night, when Barlow probably is refining that very floater. "He's been working on that shot his whole life," Smith said.

So surprise, surprise, here was another day when Butler made anything possible. The No. 1 team in the land dispatched, just as a conference dispersed and opened up the program's future some more. And a walk-on guard recalled a pregame conversation with his Dad about being made for these moments, and he shook his head at it all. "You grow up in the 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 that would be a reality."

One seat over, Stevens leaned back and turned to his left, issuing one more teaching point about the Butler Way. "You need to get those dreams revved up," he said.

Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChiTribHamilton.

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