SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Garrick Sherman had to wonder where it all went wrong.
Just two years ago, as a sophomore at Michigan State, Sherman started 17 games. He left East Lansing and sat out the entire 2011-12 season, and this was supposed to be his year. At the very least, he could contribute. He could play a role next to Jack Cooley on a Notre Dame team with Big East title aspirations. That was the plan.
In November and December, everything went according to plan, at least on the box score. But Sherman was struggling, missing defensive assignments and boxouts, and when conference season came around, as forward Tom Knight stepped in, Sherman's minutes dwindled -- from 20 to 17 to 13 to six. Against Rutgers and Georgetown, and again versus DePaul and Syracuse last week, the 6-foot-10 forward failed to play a single minute. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey took Sherman's gold No. 11 practice jersey and changed it to blue, which meant Sherman was no longer a part of the Irish's first team.
He was a practice player. He was a scrub.
"I have been through way worse," Sherman said. "This was nothing."
On Saturday night, Garrick Sherman scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, corralled a crucial possession with four seconds left in the second overtime, put Notre Dame ahead by one in the third overtime, and made the game-saving tip that sent the game to a fifth overtime, which the Irish would eventually win, 104-101, over Louisville.
He didn't play a minute in regulation.
College basketball has problems.
Scoring has been trending downward for decades, and is now at its lowest point since the early 1950s. The game is slower than it used to be: Offenses are more efficient but possessions per game are down across the board.
Desperate to exert as much control over their young charges as possible, coaches overcoach, bleeding the game dry in predictable 35-second increments. There are too many timeouts. Referees call too many fouls or too few; physical play bogs everything down.
The most talented players leave the sport after just eight months.
Football-oriented conference realignment is like a highway cutting a line through a once-thriving downtown neighborhood; 100-year-old rivalries are tossed aside for nothing more than money.
To many casual fans, conference tournaments and the monolithic Big Dance can make the regular season feel pointless. If VCU can go from the First Four to the Final Four, they say, why does anything that happens now really matter?
It is OK to admit that these are problems. There is a segment of college basketball die-hards, this author included, that don't want to, that see such laments as trolling, that feel the need to preempt criticism by pointing at the thrilling finishes the sport so often produces. And some of that is true. But at the heart of it all are real problems -- a mix of disparate rules and decentralized authorities and decades of competitive evolution that have brought us to where we are now.
It's OK to talk about this. We should.
For 39 minutes and 10 seconds, Louisville-Notre Dame was everything that needs fixing about college hoops. It was a slow, ugly slog, plagued by fouls and bad shooting and missed calls and turnovers. With 50 seconds left in the game, the Cardinals led 56-48, the Joyce Center crowd was filtering out, and Louisville was preparing to fly back to Kentucky with another effective aesthetic abomination notched on its belt. Whatever works.
And then, not a moment too soon, the magic arrived.
In that final 50 seconds of regulation, Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant made one 3, and then another, and then another, each more difficult and well-guarded than the last. Louisville made its first four free throws but Grant's makes came too fast; by the time Gorgui Dieng missed two free throws, Notre Dame was down three, and Grant was streaking to the basket, finishing over Wayne Blackshear, drawing a foul, sinking a free throw, and tying the game at 60. In 39 minutes, Notre Dame had managed 48 points; in 50 seconds, Grant scored 12.
"I've never seen that before," Cooley said. "Maybe in old clips of Reggie Miller."
Cooley had fouled out with seven minutes left to play, and was stuck watching the rest of the game on the bench. Soon Grant would join him, as would Knight and fellow forward Zach Auguste. After Grant fouled out, Sherman and freshman Cameron Biedscheid went to their regulation-time savior and made him a promise: "We got this."
What ensued was the longest game in Big East regular-season history. It stretched three hours and 36 minutes. Eight players fouled out. Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins played 60 minutes; five others played more than 50. The final box score is almost comically even: Notre Dame shot 41.6 percent to Louisville's 40.7, Notre Dame shot 49 free throws to Louisville's 48, both teams attempted 25 3s and grabbed 19 offensive boards. Ten players scored in double figures, and five had more than 10 rebounds.
Notre Dame began the final minute of regulation play with 48 points. It finished regulation with 60. It won the game with 104.
Even wackier: Russ Smith, a player of the year candidate all season, had quite possibly the worst five overtimes in the history of the game. That sounds like Waltonian hyperbole until you consider how rare five overtimes is, and how poorly Smith played.
In the first OT, Smith inexplicably ran the clock down before launching a deep 3, leaving his teammates no time to rebound it. In the second, he missed a layup that would have won the game. In the fourth OT, with his team up two and the shot clock dead, instead of dribbling out the clock or waiting to be fouled or passing to an open teammate under the rim, Smith took a layup into contact -- which he missed, giving Notre Dame the ball and a chance to tie, and Sherman promptly delivered.
Last season, as Louisville coach Rick Pitino learned to love the unpredictable shot-happy jolt in his backcourt, he nicknamed Smith "Russdiculous." After last spring's Final Four trip, the duo grew so close Pitino lent that name to a newly purchased horse.
"It gets to the point in a game like this where you're sort of joking with each other," Cooley said. "Gorgui Dieng and I always joke about how much we hate overtimes, and during the first overtime he looked over at me like, 'I'm tired!'
"That play with Russ where they had 30 seconds left and he drove it in?" Cooley said. "I think Coach Pitino lost two years off his life tonight. He might have to put that horse down."
How do we reconcile what happened during the first 39 minutes Saturday night with the final 25? How do we get our heads around a game that can give us two hours of flawed tedium and then, faster than the light in a Joyce Center floodlight hits that midcourt four-leaf clover, give us one of the most thrilling games in the sport's history?
Perhaps it's because the game is flawed that any of this is even possible.
Maybe it's because Pitino doesn't have any future NBA guards in his backcourt that he has cast his lot with Smith, a player whose habits drive his coach insane, who can spend an entire season playing like an All-American and then go mentally missing in action in not one or two but five overtimes.
Maybe the great sport-wide leveling of talent is what allowed a blue-practice-jersey-wearing Sherman to score 17 points against Dieng and Chane Behanan in overtime.
Maybe all that overcoaching is why a team's best two players can foul out and its bench can enter the game with the calm confidence of well-prepared students ready to ace a midterm exam.
Maybe all these low-scoring down-tempo games produce tighter margins, where things are never truly out of reach, and the magic of college basketball -- how we can start a Saturday with Ben Brust's half-court buzzer-beater and end it with five OTs -- is just the gravitational pull of close games.
Maybe having a lot of very good teams and no great ones keeps us on our toes.
Or maybe it really is just magic. I don't know. What I do know is that you have to take what you love as it comes, and in 2013 college basketball is low scoring and slow-paced and stoppage-ridden. It is also five weeks of No. 1 upsets and five overtimes and half-court buzzer-beaters and Roosevelt Jones stealing one from Gonzaga and a walk-on dropping No. 1 Indiana in overtime and TCU coach Trent Johnson standing around looking confused after his team just beat Kansas. College basketball is ugly and beautiful, dull and thrilling, all at the same time. College basketball is never knowing what you're going to see next.
It's Grant scoring 12 points in 50 seconds, and Biedscheid playing with zero fear, and Behanan scoring 30 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in 56 minutes, and Smith's bad decisions and Montrezl Harrell's airballed free throw.
College basketball is Garrick Sherman, practice player turned hero, standing in a gaggle of reporters explaining into mircrophones why the 17 points he just scored in five overtime periods really wasn't all that big of a deal.
"There wasn't really all that much to think about," Sherman said. "I sat the first two halves, and I was sitting there, and coach put me in, and I had to go in. I didn't have much time to think about it.
"Hopefully I'll get a few more regulation minutes next time, but I'm just helping my team," Sherman said. "Everybody steps up."
College basketball is the best rebounder in the country sitting on the bench, best seat in the house, watching his practice shadow down a reigning Final Four outfit.
"I watched that Michigan-Wisconsin game earlier today," Cooley said. "And then this. It's the craziest day of basketball I'll ever be a part of."
He might be right. But he could be wrong. You don't know, and I don't know, and that's why we love this thing. Flaws and all.