Still under both the proverbial radar and preferred height for those playing at the highest level of college basketball, Alex Barlow will admit that his life has changed over the last month only because it has.
When the 5’11 Barlow hit an overtime runner to beat then-No. 1 Indiana on Dec. 15, he was a walk-on hero, the latest in a long line of them in Butler’s giant-killing program. Now, he’s a walk-on starter for a team that looks like a lot of other Butler teams in recent years and is playing like one, too.
The Bulldogs are 15-2 and ranked No. 13 nationally as they head into a nationally-televised game Saturday night against No. 8 Gonzaga. Butler’s leading scorer, Rotnei Clarke, will miss the game due to a neck injury suffered last week at Dayton, meaning coach Brad Stevens will count on Barlow and a committee of many to pick up the slack.
It’s worked before, and it’s working again.
Just two years ago, Barlow was a baseball recruit who thought he wanted to one day be a college basketball coach. Playing in tradition-rich programs in both sports at Cincinnati Moeller High School, Barlow had Div. II college basketball interest, but not much of it was mutual. Longtime Moeller basketball coach Carl Kremer reached out to former Moeller and Butler player Mike Monserez, who introduced Barlow to Stevens.
After a pair of visits in early 2011 and some time for Barlow to compare his baseball offers to the chance to walk on to a program that had played in back-to-back national championship games, Barlow surprised many people who knew him by choosing to hang up his spikes and mitt.
“Frankly, he was 5’11,” Kremer said. “And because of that, we thought baseball would be his sport in college.”
But Stevens not only provided a great teacher from whom Barlow could learn the coaching craft, he emphasized his philosophy that the best players play for Butler, regardless of their size of recruitment. Stevens has been known to say he roots for the underdog, and not just when his team is taking on BCS-level opponents in the NCAA Tournament.
Barlow played just 77 minutes over 16 games last season as a freshman and entered his second year very low on the early depth chart again. Butler’s returning point guard, Chrishawn Hopkins, was dismissed from the team in September and transferred to Wright State. The Bulldogs started the season with Clarke running the point, which limited his scoring chances. From there, Stevens tried several different combinations.
Barlow has started the last 10 games. His career high remains 6 points, but he’s pitched in with assists, steal, floor burns and quality minutes that have kept Butler going, both before and after Clarke’s injury.
“What we do from a basketball standpoint, it’s the old ‘Next man up,’ (philosophy),” Stevens said. “You prepare for your time. You’re in the gym every day for a reason.”
Butler hasn’t lost since the night before Thanksgiving, running off 12 in a row. Last Saturday’s win at Dayton held extra-special meaning for Barlow, a native of Springboro, Ohio. Barlow’s parents have long been Dayton season ticket holders. His grandmother was a longtime employee of the University of Dayton, and Barlow played at least one game at UD Arena during all three years he started at Moeller.
“I’ve seen hundreds of games in that place,” Barlow said. “To come back and play against Dayton as a starter, that was special. But it was another game, another step for us in getting where we want to go.”
That shot in traffic to beat Indiana stands as the biggest of his young life — “and the first game-winner I’ve ever hit,” he said — and one that brought him notoriety. Kremer said he was in his office at school and was late for a family Christmas party because the Butler-Indiana game went to overtime, but he “couldn’t stop smiling” after seeing Barlow deliver the winning points.
“I’d be lying if I said I saw Alex some day hitting those big shots or leading off the national highlight shows,” Kremer said. “But he’s the kind of kid you never count out. If he’d have stuck with baseball, he would have succeeded. When he chose Butler because he wanted to be a coach, I knew he’d go there and succeed. And now that it’s his moment to have the ball, I can’t be shocked that he’s delivering.
Barlow said his focus has long shifted from that big moment vs. Indiana to the bigger ones ahead. Butler again looms as the kind of team no one wants to play later this season, and Barlow said that’s both an exciting thought and one that carries a heavy responsibility.
“People talk about Butler’s magic, and what’s happened here is impressive, but it’s not really magic,” Barlow said. “It’s doing things the right way. There are no shortcuts. We’re not always the most athletic, most impressive team. It’s attention to detail and believing it’s going to work.”