INDIANAPOLIS – Was this any way for a calendar year to go out in college basketball? You betcha. Clearly, on its final Saturday, 2017 was ending not with a whimper, but a bang.
So it went at Butler, where the Bulldogs took down No. 1 Villanova – again -- while a first-year coach, a transfer guard, and the widow and former teammate of a player lost to cancer seized the day.
So welcome to Domino Saturday, when the last three unbeaten teams all fell, one after another.
Plop. No. 1 Villanova was beaten for the third time in a row by its new worst nightmare, Butler, who was the first team to break 100 on the Wildcats in eight years. “We knew we had it in us,” Bulldogs coach LaVall Jordan said afterward. More about that in a moment.
Plop. No. 3 Arizona State was done in by its neighbor Arizona, 84-78, for the eighth time in a row in Tucson. For Arizona, the Bahamas three-loss nightmare fades more every day.
Plop. There went No. 10 TCU, its 17-game winning streak halted by Oklahoma in general and freshman Trae Young in particular. Young had 39 points and 14 assists in the 90-89 win. Just another night at his office. That was Oklahoma’s second road win against a top-10 opponent this season, and the only other teams to do that before the end of December were Notre Dame in 1976 and Ohio State in 1961. It also left the Sooners 11-1, a year after they went 11-20. Young’s arrival might have a wee bit to do with that.
(Toasts all around for the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers! Now guaranteed to own the last perfect season for at least another year.)
BOOMER!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) December 30, 2017
Trae Young caps 39-point, 14-assist day with go-ahead free throws to lift No. 12 Oklahoma over previously-undefeated No. 10 TCU, 90-89. pic.twitter.com/OT7BUv7Qxv
Wait, there’s more. No. 5 Texas A&M was the fourth top-10 team to go down, by 22 points at Alabama, the Tide fans warming up their fervor for Monday’s football playoff game against Clemson. It didn’t help the Aggies’ cause that leading scorer DJ Hogg was suspended. “We looked like a dysfunctional team, because we were,” coach Billy Kennedy said.
Three others – No. 4 Duke, No. 6 Xavier and No. 9 Virginia – had to fight for their lives on their home courts. So did No. 13 North Carolina. Xavier had to rally from 16 points back to beat DePaul, two weeks after the Musketeers had to come from 22 points behind to beat East Tennessee State. Not the recommended way to go through the winter.
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No. 19 Tennessee let a late nine-point lead get away at Arkansas and lost 95-93 in overtime, to a Razorbacks’ team that had been winning its home games by an average of 25.6 points. It was a stout Vols’ effort, but then there’s this: They led Villanova by 15 and North Carolina by nine, and dropped both of those games, too.
So it was a riveting day, starting at the top.
Who knocked Villanova out of the top ranking last January? Who ended the Wildcats 48-game on-campus winning streak last February? After Saturday’s 101-93 shootout, who is responsible for three of Villanova’s four defeats in the 2017 calendar year?
Butler, Butler, Butler.
There were many things to learn in Hinkle Fieldhouse Saturday.
Butler can score. A lot. Three days after the 12-3 Bulldogs came from 20 points behind to beat Georgetown in two overtimes, they put up 53 points in the first half against Villanova, and shot 60 percent for the game, including 15 of 22 from beyond the 3-point line. Butler was so good, that Villanova hit 53.5 percent, had but four turnovers, and was behind by as many as 23 points.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t come to play," coach Jay Wright said. "They just were better than us in all areas that are important to winning a game.”
One of the more intriguing newcomers in the Big East is Butler guard Paul Jorgensen, a transfer and fearless shooter who averaged only 4.3 points a game in two spot duty years at George Washington, but had 23 points Saturday, including a 3-pointer from the next zip code. It was the long-range ICBM that let everyone know what kind of day it would be.
“The shot that Jorgensen hit in front of our bench, I mean, that shot was like a 30-foot shot,” Wright said. “It just showed the confidence they were playing with at that time.”
Jorgensen’s thought process on even taking it? “I don’t think there was any thinking to it.” His low-scoring days at George Washington are yesterday. His average is now over 12. “I don’t really want people to think about me as a transfer, I just want to be a Bulldog.”
Jordan has now coached two Big East games at his alma mater. Butler rallied from 20 points behind to take one, and led the top-ranked team by 23 points in the other. That’s a fine way to quickly win believers. “I was excited to see Hinkle Fieldhouse sold out in person,” he said. He added that he’d be calling his father and grandmother to share the moment on his way home.
You never know when the Butler Way is going to pop out. On Saturday, it came during a media timeout when a young man and woman stood on the court, asking the crowd to consider being a bone marrow donor for cancer patients.
The woman was Samantha Smith, the widow of Andrew Smith, a member of Butler’s Final Four teams who died of lymphoma nearly two years ago at the age of 25. The man was Chase Stigall, one of Smith’s teammates.
Moved by the Smiths’ ordeal and their desire to start a bone marrow program, Stigall registered as a donor, and a match was found. There's a four-year-old boy named Deegan Scott alive and well today because of Stigall’s bone marrow transplant. They finally met last November – a one-year wait after the procedure is required – and found out they live only 45 minutes apart in Ohio.
“Andrew and Sam battled cancer together and they didn’t have to involve anybody else, but they decided to step out of their comfort level and help other people. They wanted to give back,” Stigall said. “Without Andrew, my recipient, Deegan Scott, may not have gotten a match. I wouldn’t have signed up. I signed up because my teammate passed away.
“I was overwhelmed when I saw Deegan the first time.”
Samantha Smith in her plea to the crowd Saturday: “This is what we do. This is the Butler Way.”
No more No. 1 for the Wildcats, which is not on Wright’s radar screen, anyway.
“I don’t care when we have it, so I can’t say it’s a positive when we don’t have it. It’s about where are we as a team right now.”
And where are they? Villanova is 13-1 and the Wildcats never blinked Saturday, cutting the 23-point deficit to six. They seldom do blink. But as Mikal Bridges said, “We’ve got a lot of room to improve.”
Especially at one end.
“We’re not a great defensive team yet,” Wright said. “This is the best offensive team we’ve played against so far, and it showed. We’ve been outscoring people, and you weren’t outscoring this team tonight.
“(When) you’re the No. 1 team, teams get excited to play you and they come out really fired up. Teams come out hot and we have to weather that storm, and then we’ve got to start imposing our will. Then they come down to earth a little bit. (Butler) got hot and we never imposed our will, and they got real confident.”
A few states away, TCU’s Jamie Dixon sounded a lot like Wright.
“We’ve got to get better defensively,” he said after Oklahoma’s 90 points. “I’ve been saying it, saying it and saying it. The 12 wins have kind of hid that.”
So ended the last Saturday of the year, with several messages: No more unbeatens. Butler is still Butler, especially when it plays Villanova. Arizona looks revived. And just in time for the new year -- while powers from Duke to Villanova wonder about their defense -- that's Michigan State closing in on No. 1, by seldom allowing anyone an open shot.