As it did last year Butler entered unchartered territory by joining the revamped Big East Conference.
The Bulldogs joined the conference on July 1 and on July 3 you knew the season was going to be interesting when Brad Stevens left Hinkle Fieldhouse for the Boston Celtics. It got even more interesting when one of Butler’s best returning players, Roosevelt Jones, suffered a season-ending wrist injury while the team was on a trip to Australia.
Butler began the season with a record of 11-2 including a solid win in the Old Spice Classic against Washington State and close losses to LSU and Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs also beat in-state-rival Purdue. Yet I was skeptical about my alma mater’s chances when the Big East season began on New Year’s Eve against Villanova.
After the Purdue game Inside the Dawg Pound on twitter asked where we would rank Butler after the Purdue win. I replied “Still somewhere from 6-10.” Someone then replied to my tweet saying I was stupid in thinking that.
I watched most of the other nine Big East teams during the pre-conference season. Something struck of what they had that Butler didn’t – bigger and stronger players and also as I mentioned in my previous post about Saint Louis – those teams also had deep benches. They go almost 10 players deep. Butler like the Billikens goes maybe seven.
In the opening Big East game against Villanova the Bulldogs played tough and had a chance at the end of the first overtime to tie it again but turned the ball over trying to set up a 3-point shot. It looked like maybe Butler wasn’t going to be as overmatched as I had previously thought.
After the Villanova game came a showdown with also new Big East member and rival – Xavier. If there is one team on Butler’s schedule I want to be more than any other it’s Xavier. It goes back from the days when both were members of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. It also goes from when Thad Matta, a former Bulldog, left Butler to become the head coach at Xavier after just one season.
Butler led by five at halftime and again it looked like expectations might be raised. The Musketeers tied it and the game went back and forth for most of the second half. Missed shots and turnovers in the end doomed the Bulldogs at the Cintas Center as Xavier won.
DePaul, which was predicted to finish in last place in the Big East, came to Hinkle Fieldhouse next. Butler had an 11-point lead at the under 4:00 media timeout. But turnovers and missed shots allowed the Blue Demons to comeback and tied the game and would win it in double overtime.
The Bulldogs then faced Big East charter member Georgetown. Again Butler played tough and the game went overtime. The Bulldogs had a chance to win but Kellen Dunham’s 3 was off the mark and the Hoyas won.
Then the Bulldogs traveled to Creighton to face one of the top teams in the nation and also the best player in the nation. I had my concerns about this game. I had every right to be as well. Creighton jumped out quickly on Butler and never let up. It was a 31-point lead at halftime and it didn’t get better.
Remember back I said because of the depth of the other rosters and the stronger players – those first four close games finally took its toll on Butler in that game with Creighton.
Butler returned to Hinkle Fieldhouse and faced Marquette. The Golden Eagles have been up and down this season especially without guard Vander Blue. Butler trailed by nine and then cameback to tie it and won in overtime. A huge win, one that you thought maybe this would springboard them into a win streak that the loyal Butler fans expected to see at this point in the season.
Unfortunately it didn’t last. The Bulldogs lost to Providence but did beat Seton Hall – that would be the last win Butler has had at this point in the season. The games in February there have been times when the effort has been there and then there have been times when I have shaken my head wondering what happened during practice leading up to the games.
For the most part the games remain close until the under 4:00 media timeout and that’s usually when the other teams becomes an advantage and they pull away. Then the games at St. John’s, home to Xavier and then last week’s loss to Villanova Butler never seemed to get going.
If the Bulldogs could have played a full 40 minutes like the 12 they did against Providence in the second half last Sunday in every game this season things could have been different. They would be in that 4-7 range of the Big East and I wouldn’t be writing this post.
It’s promising though when the team plays from the beginning or has those stretches where they play as the “Butler of old.”
This season has went reversed than I thought it would. Then again you look at the Butler schedule and it’s not surprising the Bulldogs went 11-2 in the pre-conference schedule. The wins can be looked at as confidence boosters leading into the conference schedule, but these things remain – Butler has players better suited for Horizon League or Atlantic 10 play and not the rigors of playing against these Big East teams on a game-to-game basis. The administration did what any college in big time athletics would do – it got an opportunity for a payday with Big East Conference and took it. That’s the nature of the beast these days whether you like it or not.
As a first-year head coach being thrown into the fire Brandon Miller has had to experiment and learn on the fly. He’s had to deal with some disciplinary issues which you never really heard about during the tenure of Brad Stevens.
Speaking of Stevens – could he have done better with this group? That’s a question which will never be answered. But hypothetically – I think the Dawgs still would have been in the 6-10 range even Stevens as the coach. It’s one thing to be able to pull some of these things off in a one-game situation such as the NCAA tournament, but doing it for 18 games over two months that’s a tough task for any coach.
The season has suddenly turned into something similar to what happened during Barry Collier’s first year at Butler in 1989-90. That team went 6-22 and the following two seasons the Bulldogs went to the NIT.
There are now at least three games left – maybe more if Butler can win its first-round game in the Big East Tournament in two weeks. Obviously with a below .500 record Butler is not going to any post-season tournament. Maybe looking ahead and putting things in place now for next season would be a way to approach the final two regular season games and the Big East Conference Tournament.
It could be a way to cap off this already long season and begin getting the program to rise from the ashes.