The Butler Bulldogs, ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time in school history to open the 2009-2010 season (#10 in last week’s ESPN/USA Today, #1 in last week’s mid-major top 25), and a trendy pick, especially locally, to make the Final Four in their hometown this spring, have underperformed in November.
This has cost them dearly in the polls, where they’ve dropped all the way to 20 or 23, depending upon the outlet of your choice, as of today (November 30).
I watched all three late-night games in Thanksgiving Weekend’s 76 Classic before sparse crowds at the old Anaheim Convention Center, and the Bulldogs missed golden opportunities to improve their NCAA seeding come March. Yes, when you’re a mid major (silly term for teams that schedule like Butler , Gonzaga, Davidson, etc), November and December have far more effect upon your fate on Selection Sunday than conference play.
Butler coach Brad Stevens scheduled a brutal non-conference slate (Davidson, Northwestern, Minnesota, UCLA, Clemson, Georgetown, Ohio State, Xavier, UAB), and so far, it’s backfired.
Unlike last year’s squad that was unranked and picked 5th in the Horizon League due to the loss of all five starters from the 2007-2008 team, this Bulldog team returned everyone, and still has very high hopes. But a come-from-behind win at home over a post-Stephen Curry Davidson club (1-5 right now) in their opener, followed by close shaves at Northwestern and Evansville, culminated in a lackluster weekend out west.
Butler looked pedestrian, especially defensively, in an 82-73 loss to Minnesota Thursday night, then won on two free throws in the final seconds — it was still called a “victory to savor” by local media — against a very poor (as of now) UCLA team, and Sunday night, closed out the tourney by losing the 5th place game to Clemson, blowing a double-digit second half lead in the process. Worse yet, Minnesota, who’s also fallen from the top 25 this week, lost its other two contests in Anaheim — to #25 Portland and Texas A & M.
So, a team with no experience and a rough schedule last November/December surpassed all expectations and rolled to a 26-5 season, but a team with every piece back has sputtered and missed key opportunities in November 2009. The Bulldogs have now dropped seven of their past eight versus ranked teams.
You can spin this any way you like, and everyone will have a different opinion, but it’s far from preferred as we move into December and the quality of Butler’s non-conference opponent continues to rival any in the nation.
The team has no rest as it returns to Indy today, then heads northeast to Muncie for a Wednesday night game versus an improved Ball State team. Saturday, Butler opens conference play against Valparaiso, and a week from tomorrow, the Bulldogs are in New York City to take on undefeated and 14th ranked Georgetown.
* – Brad Stevens photo credit: AP via SI.com