INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Khyle Marshall's rise from complementary piece to legitimate star helped Butler surpass early expectations.
Now the Bulldogs enter their inaugural Big East schedule with plenty of momentum.
Marshall scored 21 points and little-used freshman Rene Castro added 10 off the bench as Butler slugged its way to a 66-48 victory over New Jersey Institute of Technology on Saturday. Kameron Woods chipped in nine points and 12 rebounds for the Bulldogs.
It was the final nonconference game for Butler (10-2), which opens league play on Tuesday by hosting No. 8 Villanova. The Bulldogs have won five in a row since losing twice at the Old Spice Classic.
Marshall has scored 20 points or more four times this season after having four 20-point games in his first three years at Butler. The power forward is averaging 17 points a game, second on the team behind Kellen Dunham's 18.1. The Bulldogs lost top scorers Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith in the offseason, and Marshall has filled a void.
''I'm not surprised at all,'' Woods said. ''I was his backup for two years and he's taught me a lot. With our main post guy, Drew (Smith), gone from last year, he's stepped up on both ends.''
Dunham had just nine points on Saturday and the Bulldogs, picked to finish ninth in the reformed, 10-team Big East, didn't miss a beat. First-year coach Brandon Miller said the nonconference schedule helped Butler prepare for the next portion of the season and a new chapter in program history.
''I like where we are right now,'' Miller said. ''We've definitely improved from the start of the season. I liked our nonconference in terms of the styles we faced. We've seen a variety of styles like we'll see in the Big East.''
NJIT (6-9), the lone Division I independent, lost its fifth straight. The Highlanders switched up their starting lineup, inserting 6-foot Winfield Willis in place of center Tim Coleman, who sustained a foot injury in a recent practice.
That offered Miller's team another unique test as NJIT attempted to spread the floor more than usual with its offensive system built on ball movement and cutting. It didn't work.
''I thought our guards would have to control the game,'' NJIT coach Jim Engles said. ''Butler's the worst team in the country to play. They're impossible to score against. I expected us to struggle.''
Damon Lynn scored 11 points for the Highlanders, who shot 30 percent from the field to Butler's 49 percent.
Marshall controlled the paint early, made 8 of 10 shots and contributed five rebounds. Castro, a third-string point guard, was 5 of 8 in a season-high 19 minutes. Castro had sat out due to a coach's decision in four of the past eight games but was the primary backup against NJIT.
''Rene played well,'' Miller said. ''He did what he needed to do. I think it's a reflection of how he's practiced. Rene's been focused and it has carried over.''
Castro's boost helped the Bulldogs pull off a relatively easy victory.
Butler adapted well defensively and held the Highlanders to 6-of-29 shooting, including 2 of 11 from beyond the arc, in the first half. The Bulldogs led 29-16 at intermission behind eight points apiece from Marshall and Castro. They missed all six 3-point attempts before the break but used eight offensive rebounds to gain extra chances.
Butler finished with a 45-27 edge overall on the glass, getting six rebounds from Erik Fromm and five more from reserve Andrew Chrabascz. The Highlanders started four players 6-3 or shorter.
''I asked Santa for a 7-footer,'' Engles said. ''I didn't get anything under the tree. I must have been a bad boy this year.''
Butler went ahead by double figures when Jackson Aldridge's jumper made it 14-4 with 13:08 remaining in the first half. Baskets by Marshall and Chrabascz stretched the lead to 11.
The Bulldogs then went cold offensively, scoring just four points in a stretch of more than 6 1/2 minutes, as NJIT clawed within 20-14 on two free throws from Lynn that capped a 7-2 run.
But Butler responded with a 9-2 burst over the final 5 minutes of the half, getting three layups from Castro, a midrange jumper from Woods and a free throw from Woods.
After Terrence Smith dunked for NJIT with 18:13 left in the game, Butler went on a 6-1 spurt. Alex Barlow found Fromm, whose 3-pointer - Butler's first - made it 39-21. The Highlanders got no closer than 11 the rest of the way.
The Bulldogs improved to 6-0 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where they are 232-34 since the start of the 1995-96 season. On New Year's Eve, the historic gym plays host to its first Big East contest.
''We're all really excited,'' Woods said. ''We've come together.''