MILWAUKEE -- Almost one year ago, while Butler was in the throes of a three-game Horizon League losing streak, having fallen to 14-9 overall and not looking much like NCAA tournament material, the Bulldogs sat in a locker room after falling to Youngstown State and started being honest with themselves. They'd deviated from their old defensive ways. Coach Brad Stevens told his team, "I've got to get better"; senior guard Zach Hahn told him, "No, we've got to get better," and the rest of the Bulldogs followed suit, vowing to plot a course back to the NCAAs. You know what happened after that -- the 14 straight wins, the trip back to the national title game. Butler proved quite adept at self-diagnosing its problems, and then solving them.
It seemed worthwhile to check in on this year's Bulldogs while they were at a similar crossroads in the Horizon League: 12-9 overall, 6-3 in the league heading into a Thursday night road game against Milwaukee at U.S. Cellular Arena. Butler came in on a three-game winning streak, and to be brutally honest, that streak would've needed to extend to 13 or 14, and end only with a respectable loss in the Horizon tournament title game, if the Bulldogs were going to have a shot at an at-large NCAA tournament bid. With just one non-conference win over a likely tourney team (Purdue), they didn't have much room for error.
I wondered if I'd get to witness one of those games that later becomes part of the Butler-gaining-postseason-momentum narrative, but instead saw what I assume will be the Bulldogs' 2011-12 offensive nadir: A 53-42 loss in which they went 1-for-16 from long range and shot 28.1 percent overall.
Rob Jeter's Panthers are the new defensive power of the Horizon League, and did a fine job solving Butler's ball-screening, but its shooting woes were mostly self-inflicted. It was brick after brick after brick. One late possession featured two air balls. The last time I saw the Bulldogs in person was the 2011 national title game, and this played out like an epically painful flashback to that loss to UConn. They weren't 18.8-percent bad, but they missed even more uncontested looks this time, which made it even harder to digest.
Stevens came into the postgame news conference and, as is customary, was asked to make an opening statement. His statement:
"Obviously, that was brutal. I don't know what else to tell you."
He appeared more dismayed than angry. He blamed himself for bad coaching, but added, "I hate to say this, but I thought we were really out-willed in the last 30 minutes of the game." He was right: Although Butler dominated the offensive glass in the game's opening stretch, they lost the overall offensive-rebounding battle, 41.2 percent to 36.6 percent, and were out-hustled on plays that could've changed the course of the game in the final minutes -- a very un-Butler-like occurrence.
Stevens' players were back in the visitor's locker room, holding a meeting that they hoped would have the same effect as the one they had last year in Youngstown. Among those who spoke was senior point guard (and team leader) Ronald Nored, who's in danger of missing the NCAAs for the first time in his career and is desperate not to let that happen. "I only have nine regular-season games left," he said, "so I told them, 'We have to sacrifice everything for each other, to make sure we get [to the NCAAs]. We might lose a game, but we can't lose like that, where we're not making winning plays.'"
"I still think we have a team that can go to the tournament," Nored said. "But we're going to have to
Butler's defense, which ranks 62nd nationally in efficiency, is just as strong as it was last season. The problem is that it has its
Center Andrew Smith, an infrequent launcher of threes, is their most accurate from long range, at 38.2 percent, and it goes down from there, with Nored at 37.1, Chase Stigall (whom they hoped would assume the "gunner" role) at 29.0, Crishawn Hopkins at 24.7 and Kameron Woods at 24.2. None of those players could make a three on Thursday, and Stevens became so desperate for someone who could that he inserted into the game walk-on Elliott Kampen, who'd played just seven minutes all season and was a regular, non-playing student at Indiana last year. Kampen connected on their first -- and last -- three-pointer with 10:49 left, cutting Milwaukee's lead to 37-33. He was rewarded with 14 minutes of playing time, for lack of other offensive options.
"The difference between Butler this year and last year is that last year, they knew who they were going to get points from on the perimeter: Shelvin Mack," said Jeter, whose Panthers lost to Butler in the 2011 Horizon tournament title game, in this building. "And they had a kid in Matt Howard who gave them all the intangibles -- took the charges, did the theatrics. They still play together as a group, but those are the noticeable differences."
What must be frustrating for Butler is that they have an absolute perimeter killer facing them in practice every day: Rotnei Clarke, who's sitting out after transferring from Arkansas, where he averaged 15.2 points and shot 43.8 percent from long range as a junior. He could very well lead the Horizon League in scoring when he takes over the Bulldogs' point-guard duties next season. In the meantime, their only real hope is that Stigall breaks out of what's becoming a miserable slump.
As for the frontcourt intangibles, the hope is that Khyle Marshall, who had 19 points and 16 rebounds in their wins over Illinois-Chicago and Loyola last weekend, can be a more consistent force. He had nine points and just three boards in 24 minutes against Milwaukee. Freshmen Kameron Woods and Roosevelt Jones are both offensively challenged but offer value on defense and the boards. This is still a defensively sound team, with Nored (who had four steals) leading the charge by locking down the perimeter. The Bulldogs held Milwaukee to just 38.2 percent shooting, but would've needed to play an other-wordly level of D to overcome their offensive struggles.
In hopes of preparing his team for tournament situations -- in part because they're going to need to win the Horizon League tournament to have a shot at reaching a third straight Final Four -- Stevens
Nored wasn't sure what they'd call the rest of this weekend's bracket, other than that they won't treat it like a consolation round. "We still have to go to Green Bay on Saturday, and win," he said, and as he walked out the door of the arena, he promised that Butler's offense would only get better. Jan. 26 should mark rock bottom. Never count the Bulldogs out of the NCAAs, but know that to get there this season, they'll have to pull off their greatest self-repair job yet.