Before it even began, the 2012-13 college basketball season has been a target. Scores of critics have used poor offense, a lack of star power and average attendance numbers and television ratings as evidence that the sport is "broken" or on "life support."
In an inevitable follow-up, college hoops diehards have taken issue with the criticism. The supporters point to the unpredictability, the crazy finishes and the extreme parity of the sport as justification for its allure.
The truth, per usual, is that both groups are right and both groups are wrong. The last three months have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that college hoops has problems which are in desperate need of addressing. That being said, the crazy upsets, the seemingly endless array of buzzer-beaters and the interesting cast of characters have made this season a joy to follow. The latest major chapter in the story of the season is a perfect example.
Louisville and Notre Dame played the longest regular season basketball game in Big East history on Saturday, a contest that lasted five overtimes before the Fighting Irish finally prevailed. For 65 minutes it was dull, captivating, hideous, hilarious and sensational. Basically, Notre Dame/Louisville was the 2012-13 college basketball season to date; an imperfect collection of moments that delivered in the sport's two most important categories: passion and drama.
On the surface it seemed like the perfect backdrop for an instant classic: No. 11 taking on No. 25 with ESPN in town at one of America's most well-known universities. If the sport in question were college basketball's gridiron brother, then there'd be no further need for explanation.
South Bend is never going to do basketball the way it does football. A scarcely attended live taping of ESPN's College GameDay followed up by a scant Fighting Irish presence at the school's most popular local watering holes made that apparent from the get-go on Saturday. Louisville fans - who will never do football the way they do basketball - made the trip in predictably solid numbers and were greeted with either the expectedly pleasant "you guys are going down tonight" or the defeatist "we're probably going to lose" from bartender and servers alike. There was no bad blood here, no raging build-up for what might go down as the most memorable game of the year.
The extreme home court advantage Notre Dame has benefitted from over the past decade remains one of the biggest mysteries in college basketball. The Joyce Center is compact - Rutgers is the only Big East team that plays all of its home games in an arena with a smaller capacity - but not particularly daunting. The games in South Bend are generally well attended, but the Fighting Irish fans don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of visiting teams. Despite this and the fact that Mike Brey's teams have typically been good but not great since his arrival in 2000 makes the Irish being nearly unbeatable at home under his watch more than a little difficult to understand.
Notre Dame remains the only Big East road venue where Louisville hasn't won since it joined the conference in the fall of 2005. Attending a game between the Cardinals and the Irish inside the Joyce Center made that fact only more unbelievable.
U of L fans travel well, and their presence in South Bend gave the game the feel of an NCAA Tournament tilt featuring a protected seed (Notre Dame in this case) playing close to home. The Fighting Irish supporters were more than willing to match the intensity brought by the road-trippers, but there were also plenty of moments where it was apparent that basketball isn't their main squeeze.
A group of home fans sitting directly behind me cheered passionately for 65 minutes without ever referring to one member of the Fighting Irish by his actual name. "How are we ever going to win with him fouled out?" "I don't think he's very good at free-throws." "Didn't he hook up with Allison?"
It wasn't the right setting for an instant classic, especially during the overtime periods when the empty seats left by the waves of Fighting Irish fans admitting defeat in the final minute of regulation became clearly visible. That didn't mean it didn't feel right.
"Pedestrian" was the word ESPN's Jay Bilas used to describe the first 39 minutes and 13 seconds of Saturday's "game of the week." He was being kind.
With 47 seconds remaining, Louisville led 56-48 in a contest destined to be forgotten by Monday morning. Neither team had shot better than 42 percent, only one Cardinal had made a three-pointer, and the evening's most consistent cheer had been the Notre Dame student section counting down the final 10 seconds of the shot clock.
What Jerian Grant did next ensured that his name will have cachet in South Bend long after his graduation. The junior guard buried three consecutive shots from beyond the arc, each deeper and more contested than the previous. He then completed his personal miracle comeback by converting a three-point play with 16.2 seconds remaining to force overtime.
Twelve points. Thirty-one seconds. That's the only story you'll hear about the final minute of regulation, but it's not an entirely accurate depiction of what took place.
Grant's four possessions of glory would have been noteworthy regardless of the game's final outcome, but they wouldn't have been heroic without some help from the visiting team. There was a slip and a turnover from Cardinal point guard Peyton Siva, a missed free-throw by Chane Behanan, two more missed free-throws by Gorgui Dieng, and finally an ill-advised attempt to draw a charge by Wayne Blackshear that allowed for the final point of regulation.
It was a perfect finish for Grant and Notre Dame, thanks in large part to a perfect collapse by the Cardinals.
The lasting image of any sports classic is always somebody making a play. Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper at the buzzer, Bryce Drew's miracle shot against Ole Miss, Hakeem Warrick's block on Michael Lee in the '03 national title game. Even in the game most compared to Saturday night's - Syracuse's six overtime triumph over Connecticut in the 2009 Big East Tournament - the best-remembered sequence is Eric Devendorf's insane buzzer-beater and succeeding celebration...and that shot wound up not even counting.
There will be no such moment attached to Saturday's game, because when the opportunity to make a durable memory presented itself, each team refused to capitalize.
On three separate occasions, Louisville had the ball with the score tied and the shot clock off. The results of those three possessions were one Peyton Siva turnover and two Russ Smith desperation heaves from more than 25 feet out. In its one opportunity in the same situation, the home team also turned the ball over.
Neither team made more than three shots in a single overtime period, and only once did both teams manage to score double digits in five minutes (both teams scored 10 points in overtime four). Notre Dame point guard Eric Atkins missed five of his six free-throw attempts in the extra periods. Louisville's Montrezl Harrell one-upped him by air-balling the second of his two misses by a solid three feet. The Cardinals made two three-pointers in the five overtimes, Notre Dame made one.
The only time either team appeared capable of making an above average play was when doing so meant re-leveling the score. The one triple the Irish made was Cameron Biedscheid's to tie the game at 75 with 17 seconds to play in the second overtime. There were four separate instances in the extra sessions where Louisville trailed by one point before making one of two free-throws.
It was as if both teams were simply willing to be just as good or as bad as it took to make sure the game wouldn't end.
By now, most hoop heads are overly familiar with the story of Russ Smith. In three years, the former two-star recruit known for his erratic play and goofy personality has gone from seldom-used reserve to key sixth-man on a Final Four team to Louisville's leading scorer.
Despite the increase in team role and national status, Smith has been unable to fully shake his propensity for making the head-scratching decisions that earned him the nickname "Russdiculous" from head coach Rick Pitino. It was why Louisville fans cringed when Smith charged toward the basket with his team up four and just 30 seconds to play in regulation. He calmly pulled the ball out, was fouled and sunk two free-throws.
Fast forward an hour or so to a nearly identical situation in the fourth overtime. Louisville leads by two with 25 seconds to play and the ball is again in Smith's hands. It's an obvious foul situation and Notre Dame is attempting to play its role accordingly. The speedy Smith eludes his would-be hackers and heads towards the Cardinal basket, killing precious seconds in the process. With three teammates around him, the clock still rolling and just one defender in his sights, Smith does the unthinkable: he drives directly at ND's Garrick Sherman and misses one of the crazy lay-up attempts that have made him infamous.
Too skilled to allow Notre Dame to accomplish what it wanted to do, too reckless for Louisville to do the same. It's the description of a sequence Cardinal fans are far more familiar with than they'd like.
The lesser known player in that equation is Sherman, a transfer center from Michigan State who wouldn't have warranted mention in anyone's game summary had Jack Cooley refrained from fouling out with almost seven minutes to play in regulation. Instead, Sherman, who woke up Saturday morning having only seen the court in six conference games, wound up with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting...all of which came in the second overtime and beyond. The bulk of that production also came while he was going head-to-head with Dieng, Louisville's All-Big East center.
"How 'bout Garrick Sherman?" Notre Dame coach Mike Brey asked rhetorically after the game. "He was a little bit of a forgotten guy. For him to come in and do that for us...he really delivered."
Undeniably imperfect, often hard two watch, largely forgotten and yet still delivering. Just like this game, just like this college basketball season.