For the first time in a long time, a school was actually excited to play Saint Louis University. Students lined up outside Hinkle Fieldhouse for two hours to get a seat in the “Dawg Pound.” The historic fieldhouse was rocking, the sellout crowd of 10,000 on its feet throughout the first half to cheer their Butler Bulldogs on to a 34-29 advantage.
But, it was section 32 that saw the Billikens win 65-61. It was the raucous section of students that made the bus trip from SLU and chanted, “This is our house.” As the clock hit 0:00, juniors Mike McCall Jr. and Dwayne Evans smiled, pointed toward the crowd and walked off the court, capping off a wild final minute of college basketball.
“Sometimes we can overanalyze these things…that’s a good basketball team,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the game. He’s touted SLU as a Final Four contender all week on local radio shows, comparing it to his national runner-up squads of 2010 and 2011. He says that they’re not as talented, but play a similar style of basketball: well-coached, disciplined, defensive-minded.
Now, the Billikens are 2-0 against the new kids on the Atlantic 10 block, blowing out the Bulldogs in a rowdy Chaifetz Arena before enduring a similarly boisterous, but hostile crowd at Hinkle last Friday.
The even-keeled Billikens withstood the early onslaught though, falling behind by as much as nine in the first half but never panicking. An early 8-0 run in the second half put the Billikens ahead, and they never relinquished the lead after a Kwamain Mitchell lay-in at the 17:21 mark.
After the game, it wasn’t about what Butler did wrong, it was about everything SLU did right. McCall was draped on Butler star Rotnei Clarke all evening. Freshman Kellen Dunham went on a personal 7-0 run early, but the Billikens adjusted and quieted him the rest of the game.
“They’ve got really good players, they’ve got a good coach… They beat us,” Stevens said. It was two good, top-20 basketball teams playing basketball the way it’s supposed to be played. Fans, get used to it.
SLU is the only team that has had the Bulldogs’ number since Stevens began coaching the team in 2007. Not Indiana, not Xavier, not Purdue. Just little old SLU, led by an interim head coach from Indiana University and a handful of wily veterans determined to make this season one to remember.
Whatever happens with the “Catholic 7” that will soon be breaking away from the Big East, these two schools need to play each other. They’re four hours apart, straight down I-70. It’s a match made in basketball heaven, something SLU and Butler students and fans could look forward to twice a year.
If both teams were invited to join the Catholic-7 and form a sort of basketball power conference, they’d be the heart of its Midwestern branch, the face of the mid-major darlings that endear the hearts of basketball fans everywhere come March Madness.
Imagine this season, plus welcoming the likes of Georgetown, Marquette or Villanova to Chaifetz Arena. After SLU’s dominating home performances against Butler and VCU and its invasion of Hinkle Fieldhouse, it’s in the conversation to join that conference. Further, SLU’s vacant head coaching position becomes more attractive with every victory if Crews decides he doesn’t want the gig (and it should be his for the taking if he wants it, by the way.)
Crews professes, “we keep things pretty simple around here.” Keep winning like this, and things are pretty simple. After SLU’s run last season, he’s done wonders to keep this team in the national conversation after its tumultuous off-season, and is a leading candidate for National Coach of the Year.
There’s an old saying about rivalries that goes something like, “it’s not a rivalry until both teams win.”
So it’s not a rivalry yet. It’s one year. It’s two great basketball games (for SLU at least), two good basketball teams at the top of their conference, playing a beautiful form of team basketball.
From an Indiana perspective, it’s a big deal when a team beats Butler at its own, well-coached game. “Out-Butlered” read the headlines in Indianapolis after SLU’s 76-58 victory at Chaifetz in January. There were similar sentiments after this victory. That’s not supposed to happen. You’re not allowed to walk into Hinkle, out-hustle the Bulldogs, play better defense and just look like an all-around better team. But the Billikens were the superior squad. Twice.
It’s not Yankees-Red Sox, Duke- North Carolina or even Missouri- Illinois. But it’ll do.
It’s not a rivalry yet. But it could be. It could be something to look forward to twice a year, something worthy of waiting in line for tickets, something that brings a couple regional schools on to the national stage for a few hours.
It could be, and it very well should be.