Butler leading a bubble life

Pair of slumps keeping Bulldogs in survival mode

February 22, 2011|By Shannon Ryan

After the NCAA championship game last season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested that Butler should be considered a 2011 contender.

The perception of the Bulldogs went from favorites to unfortunates after they started the season 4-4 and suffered through a rough winter slump in Horizon League play.

Of course, coach Brad Stevens cares as much about perception as Blue the bulldog mascot cares about his appearance. Stevens employs a straightforward strategy to deal with this.

"You don't freak out," he said Saturday after a victory at Illinois-Chicago.

That steady approach has helped the Bulldogs assemble a six-game winning streak and play itself back onto the NCAA tournament bubble. ESPN's Joe Lunardi had Butler listed as one of the last four teams to earn a berth in his latest mock bracket.

"I'll let everyone else figure that stuff out," Stevens said. "How you're playing at the end of the season is a good thing. Our guys are playing really well."

Butler was ranked No. 16 in the first Associated Press Top 25 poll. Although the loss of Gordon Hayward to the NBA was a definite point of concern, Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored were experienced returnees who contributed in the run to the NCAA championship game last season.

The Bulldogs lost nonconference games at Louisville and Xavier and against Duke. They also dropped an inexplicable game in overtime to Evansville at home.

More surprising was their dip in Horizon League play. From Jan. 16 to Feb. 3, the Bulldogs went 1-4, losing to one of the worst teams in the league at Youngstown State.

"I don't have any regrets over November and December," Stevens said. "Find many teams that aren't losing at Xavier, at Louisville and against Duke in the Meadowlands.

"We went through a slump where we lost some games, and you're not going to find teams that don't do that either. That's why I never thought we were too far away from being pretty good."

Officially overworked? After the same three officials who worked a late Saturday game at Michigan State showed up to work an early game Sunday at Purdue, questions arose about whether coaches might worry about the referees' fatigue.

"I've always felt this: Just get quality officials," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "Those guys are all veterans. But I don't think there's anything wrong scrutinizing it."

Mike Kitts, Mike Sanzere and Ted Valentine worked both games, and while Painter said they are veterans he trusts, he would like to see the Big Ten bring along more young officials.

"I wish there were 30 to 40 guys the level of those three," Painter said. "As coaches, we'll complain about guys who have been there a while, but we don't like seeing those new guys. … There's no doubt the Big Ten Conference, you've got to bring some new guys along or you're going to get stuck. You have to have a balance."

Helped/hurt: With teams vying for precious spots in the NCAA tournament, each game can boost or blow up a team.

One team that helped its cause is St.John's. The Red Storm, who earned a spot in the Top 25 for the first time since 2000, have beaten five ranked opponents this season, including Pittsburgh.

A team that hurt its cause is Washington. The Huskies lost by only one point at Arizona, but they now have five losses in an average Pac-10.

sryan@tribune.com

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