|Hinkle Fieldhouse erupted as Butler defeated Gonzaga on a buzzer-beater Saturday night. (themonitor.com)|
It's a common misconception that the college basketball season doesn't really get exciting until tournament time.
Saturday helped disprove this notion with a full day of drama. Out of the 13 games featuring a top-25 team, nine of those games were decided by single digits and seven of those games were decided by five points or less. The NCAA Tournament is one of the most dramatic and exciting postseasons in all of sports, but the great games start long before March, as Saturday showed. Saturday afternoon was like a three-course meal with each course better than the last.
Texas had Kansas on the ropes midway through the second half with an 11-point lead. Texas had a similar lead against West Virginia last week, but was unable to hang on. Saturday was deja vu for the Longhorns. KU continued to chip away at the lead until finally going ahead 54-53 with 4:29 remaining. It was a one-point game for the next three minutes until KU broke free for good with a huge dunk by Ben McLemore to extend the lead to five with 1:14 left. Texas' youth showed through in the end as the momentum continued to swing in the Jayhawks favor, but the Longhorns were clearly not intimidated by the No. 4 next to the Kansas name.
Remote controls were getting a work out. With about a minute of game time between them, Wichita State was trying to hold on to a home win against No. 12 Creighton while No. 6 Syracuse was giving No. 1 Louisville all they could handle at the Yum! Center in Louisville. WSU superbly defended National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott, who was unable to convert on the final Creighton possessions as the Shockers held on to win 67-64.
At the same time, Louisville saw its lead slip away with a steal and emphatic dunk by Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams gave the Orange a lead they would not give up with 23 second left.
That highlight will be shown in March, but wasn't even the best play of the day. That was fittingly saved for primetime. Leading up to the final game on the night, Oregon hung on to knock off UCLA in Pauley Pavilion and Michigan State closed out a 59-56 nail-biter against Ohio State.
Like most great meals, you are already full and content entering the dessert round. Saturday would have been one of the best college basketball days of the season after Ohio State, Michigan State, but the best was still to come.
The matchup was set for a great finish. No. 8 Gonzaga versus No. 13 Butler in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. The battle of mid-major juggernauts battling on the court where the Hoosiers once captivated the world. The atmosphere could have been a Final Four, and the caliber of teams was just as strong as the surroundings.
After a back-and-forth battle, Gonzaga looked to have the game wrapped up. Kelly Olynyk hit two big free throws to take a 63-62 lead in the final 10 seconds. Butler was then called for traveling on the next possession, with 3.5 seconds left, nearly sealing their fate. But then the "magic" of Hinkle Fieldhouse, which looked very real Saturday, began to work. On the inbounds play, a miscommunication between Gonzaga's David Stockton, who was inbounding the ball, and Olynyk led to a steal by Butler's Roosevelt Jones. What happens next was scripted for March.
Fans had to be exhausted after seven hours of lead changes, nail-biters and plays that will live on highlight reels long after this.
March is supposed to be the exciting time of year for college basketball. But take a look at the games this month and realize the drama begins long before the tournament. We can only hope March is as exciting as Saturday was.