Mid-Major Madness Starts Early as Butler downs CSU 70-59

There are some things simpler in the mid-major world of college basketball when compared to its BCS contemporaries.

Less cameras, less reporters, less pressure from boosters, less temptations from street agents, and oh yeah, less dance cards available come March.  No need to worry about getting that signature win on the road out of conference to impress the selection committee, and no need to fret over a collasle let-down against a team you should have beaten.

All you have to worry about is one thing: win your conference tournament.  Do that, and your season’s a success.

Not to say the season for 15th ranked Butler won’t be a success if they end up falling in the conference finals, as they did a year ago, because at 22-4 (15-0) I’d say they made their mark.  They’ll most likely find a way into the NCAA tournament again this season, even if they should somehow fall in the conference finals.  But the respect and collective approval Butler’s earned on the court to date does just about nothing for the rest of the Horizon League Conference.  All that means to the Cleveland States, Green Bays, and Wright States of the league is that they have to somehow find a way to beat the 15th ranked team in the country to earn a right onto your company’s bracket-pool.  Simple enough, right?  And couple that challenge with the fact that Butler’s foot is still squarely on the gas pedal.

Butler Coach Brad Stevens:

“I’ve been on it when things don’t go your way in the conference tournament and you don’t get in.  And we have not acheived that yet at all, and so we have to continue to play.  Maybe we have in some peoples eyes, and maybe we haven’t, but our guys are playing, they want to play, they want to keep playing, and we need to keep getting better.  We always talk about how as long as you have season left, the best moments should not be behind you.”

In order for teams like Cleveland State to not be left behind Butler come tournament time, the best chance to take a swing at the conference leader would be through earning a two-seed in the conference tournament.  Coming into today’s Cleveland State – Butler match-up (in Cleveland) the Vikings found themselves alone in second place at 9-4 in the league, just ahead of Green Bay and Wright State who each sat at 9-5.  After hanging close for a half, foul trouble, domination on the glass (46-20 Butler), and the inability to connect from three point land (1-15 for CSU) earned the Vikings their fifth conference loss by way of a 70-59 thumping by the now 16-0 Butler Bulldogs.

The Vikings hung in early though, and at the half they found themselves down only two, 29-27.  It could have been tied at the break had it not been for a Gordon Hayward (19 pts, 11 reb, 1 assist) length of the court lay-up with 3.7 seconds remaining.  But that two point margin would be as close at it’d be all game.  In the second half Butler pounded the Vikings inside as Matt Howard (21 pts, 13 reb, 3 assists) scored the first six points of the second half, stretching the lead out to 8, and it first became 10 when Hayward hit a three with 13:31 left in the period.  There was no looking back from there, as the second half push proved too much.

CSU’s Norris Cole on the second half:

“I’m not necessarily surprised by the way they started the half, we knew what they were capable of, but I’m disappointed in the way we responded to some of the situations out there, I feel like we got out-toughed, and thats on us, it wasn’t so much what they were doing, we were prepared for what they were doing, but in the first five minutes they just executed better than us.”

Part of being out-toughed was due to the depleted front-line the Vikings were forced to play with for much of the half.  Thin on the interior to begin with – starting four guards – CSU was only able to get 13 minutes out of starting Center Aaron Pogue, and with him watching, the Vikings had no answers for Howard inside off their bench.  Butler’s lead grew to as much as 14 before eventually winning by 11.

That’s not to say there’s no hope for the Vikings to knock off Butler once again in the tournament.  Bright side for the Vikings today?  They shot 1 of 15 from three, got out-rebounded by 26, didn’t have their starting five on the floor for much of the game due to foul trouble, and still only lost to the 15th ranked team in the country by 11.  Not that CSU coach Gary Waters is looking at it that way.

CSU Coach Gary Waters:

“I don’t think they beat us, I think we beat ourselves, number one.  And number two, its hard to play that team without our best players on the floor.  Understand we played half the game without our best players on the floor, you can’t beat that team like that…now, another thing we didn’t do a very good job today was hitting our open shots.  We were one of fifteen from three…now part of that was them, because they are an excellent defensive team.  They play inside you, they contest every shot, so now you got to be tough enough to step up and hit the shot, and we didn’t do that today.”

Vikings PG Norris Cole scored 17 but shot 4 of 14 from the field to get there.  Vikings guard D’Aundray Brown kicked in 14, and played good defense on Hayward early before racking up 4 fouls and having to sit for critical stretches of the game.  Jeremy Montgomery had 9 in the first half for the Vikings, and looked like he might have a big afternoon, but only managed one basket in the second half finishing with 11.  Shelvin Mack – who Vikings coach Gary Waters called better than Hayward and Howard after the game – finished with 11 for Butler.

But if your the Vikings, and you just need to beat Butler once, today didn’t have to be the day to do it.  But it could have been a day you put a stranglehold on that second seed, and now its a three team race for second best.  Or maybe the race to play Bulter as late in the tournament as possible, whatever you want to call it.  I guess you could even hope that they lose before they get to you.  With four games remaining, and three teams locked in with 5 losses, anything can happen as far as that goes.  Anything except Butler not winning the regular season title that is.


* – Photo credit: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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