Let’s get one thing straight: I did not expect Butler to dominate the Horizon League this season. I figured a road loss to Cleveland State was a likelihood, and was intrigued by the addition of Ray McCallum, Jr. to his father’s squad at Detroit. Clearly, there would be no 18-0 run through the conference. Still, I thought, the team has seniors, and some promising freshmen, and things would be OK.
Now, I’m not so sure. A sweep of the Bulldogs by Wisconsin-Milwaukee didn’t figure anywhere in my preseason musings. Right now, the top two teams in the Horizon are Valparaiso, under quiet coaching legend Homer Drew, and Cleveland State. Both teams are 7-2, with Butler and Wright State hanging a full game back at 6-3. That’s what makes this past weekend’s result so baffling: the Panthers aren’t even one of the Horizon’s best teams. They’re 5-5 overall, with two of those wins coming against the league’s rock stars from Indianapolis.
Sure, you can always say that the Bulldogs have a target on their backs, that they get an opponent’s best effort every game due to their NCAA championship game appearance to end last season, but that dawg don’t hunt. Butler has been the league bully for a decade now – they always get an opponent’s best effort. This year, they just don’t have the juice to withstand such efforts.
When I say ‘juice’, I mean defense. Brad Stevens (right) still has the best offensive team in the Horizon by a wide margin. The Bulldogs maintain a 114.3 adjusted offensive efficiency mark, which is nearly ten points better than Cleveland State, the next closest challenger. Looking at kenpom.com’s defensive efficiency numbers, however, Butler posts a 98.7. Defensive numbers are like golf scores – the lower the better. The Bulldogs have the worst number out of the league’s top four teams right now, and they’re inching toward the above-100 club, which features every member of the league’s bottom six, including Milwaukee.
If this trend of defensive futility continues, allowing Valpo and Cleveland State to hold onto the top two spots in the Horizon, Butler will be in a position they’re not at all familiar with – they’ll have to go on the road in the league tournament, which rewards the top two regular-season finishers with double byes and awards home court in the quarters and semis to the No 1 seed. The final is played at the venue of the highest remaining seed. There have been plenty of those games played in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. This year, the conference’s auto-bid hopefuls may have to go through Cleveland, OH or Valparaiso, IN.
That’s what Butler is now: an auto-bid hopeful, just like everyone else in the Horizon. They don’t have the profile of an at-large team, no matter what they did in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and as of today, winning the Diamond Head Classic by beating Florida State and Washington State doesn’t look like much to brag on.
Beating Butler is great for the teams that have done so. The Bulldogs are a class act, and a worthy target for an ambitious team. Certainly nobody is going to give them a break. But this setback for the Bulldogs is also a setback for the Horizon League if the auto-bid goes to a team that gets blown out in the first round of the Big Dance. Beating Butler is a thrill, but it must inspire greater efforts down the road – reminiscent of recent appearances by Cleveland State (2007) and Milwaukee under Bruce Pearl -- if it’s to be a harbinger of great things to come in the Horizon League.