NCAA Rupp Arena notes: Butler's Rotnei Clarke finally gets his shot

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 21, 2013 

For Butler guard Rotnei Clarke, perspective came in the form of a frightening head-first collision with a basket support.

"I try not to think about it because, you know, it was scary," Clarke said Thursday after helping Butler beat Bucknell 68-56 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. "Because I couldn't feel from my neck down."

Clarke, who played for Arkansas in his first three college seasons, attempted a right-handed layup from the left side of the basket in a Jan. 12 game against Dayton. "So it wouldn't be blocked," he said.

Dayton's Matt Derenbecker fouled from behind. The foul sent Clarke into the basket support. He crumpled to the floor. "'I can't move! I can't move!'" Clarke recalled saying to those who rushed to his side. "They knew from my facial expression it was serious."

Within five minutes, Clarke regained the feeling in his arms and legs. But, as a precaution, he was strapped to a stretcher and taken to a hospital.

"It's been going through my mind a lot," he said. " ... It never really left (his mind) since that happened. Every day, I wake up and thank God for being alive, being healthy and being able to walk and get out of my bed."

The victory over Bucknell is Clarke's one chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. He acknowledged nervousness as a factor in his five-for-14 shooting (two of eight from three-point range).

"I wouldn't want to admit it," he said. "But I kind of showed it. I shot an eight-foot air ball, I think. I was kind of shocked I did that. First-game nerves, maybe."

As a high school phenom, Clarke became known as the Damon Bailey of Oklahoma. Like Bailey, immortalized in John Feinstein's Season on the Brink, Clarke became his state's all-time leading high school scorer and shot his Verdigris High team to a state championship. So many fans wanted to see him play, highway officials added "Verdigris" to an exit sign on the Will Rogers Turnpike.

Clarke, a 6-foot guard, scored 1,306 points for Arkansas. He transferred to Butler after Arkansas fired former Kentucky player John Pelphrey as coach.

When asked if he'd played in Rupp Arena prior to this NCAA Tournament, Clarke smiled and said, "I have unfortunately." What did he remember about the game? "Getting blasted by 30," he said with an even wider smile.

Actually, Kentucky won 101-70 on Jan. 22, 2010. That remains Arkansas' most-lopsided loss in Southeastern Conference play. Clarke, then a sophomore, made five of 15 shots (two of nine from three-point range).

"You know, it's a cool arena," Clarke said. "... With 24,000 Kentucky fans, it's a crazy atmosphere."

Fewer fans this time

Attendance was down markedly at the first session of the NCAA Tournament in Rupp Arena on Thursday.

The NCAA announced an attendance figure of 14,622 for the Butler-Bucknell and Marquette-Davidson games. When the tournament was last played in Rupp Arena, similar second- and third-round games in 2007, the average attendance was 19,936.

When asked where the fans were, Lexington Center Corp President and CEO Bill Owen quipped, "They're all trying to get tickets to Dayton."

Owen acknowledged being puzzled about how the NCAA placed three marquee teams (Indiana, Ohio State and Notre Dame) in a smaller Dayton Arena (listed capacity 123,409) while Louisville was the lone big-name draw to Rupp.

"It's all about teams sent to a venue," Owen said of the lower attendance.

In 2007, the NCAA all but assured big crowds by sending Duke, Indiana, Ohio State, Louisville and Xavier to Rupp Arena.

That was also the case for the 2002 region semifinals and finals in Rupp Arena. Those four teams included Duke and Indiana. The average attendance was 20,956.

Although the NCAA announced an attendance of 14,622 for Thursday's afternoon games, the count of fans through turnstiles was believed to be about 10,000. A larger crowd was expected for the night session, when Louisville played North Carolina A&T followed by Missouri-Colorado State. Rupp Arena's capacity for the NCAA Tournament games this year is 22,260.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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