College Basketball Nation: butler-valparaiso 022610

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Valparaiso coach Homer Drew has seen plenty of Butler teams in his 30 years of coaching -- much more so since Valpo made the switch from the Mid-Continent Conference to Horizon League in 2007 -- and his diagnosis of the 2009-10 Bulldogs after Butler's 74-69 win over Valparaiso Friday night was straightforward, simple, and full of gravitas. Oh, and it was accurate.

"They're the best Butler team I've seen," Drew said.

Bingo. But let's go one further: This Butler team isn't just the best in the history of the program. It's the best in the history of the Horizon League.

Those are the kind of accolades you can realistically bestow on a team that sealed an undefeated conference season Friday, and has the nation's longest win streak at 18. And they managed to do it without their best player and leading scorer, Gordon Hayward.

Hayward was sidelined by back spasms Friday night -- his condition is day-to-day, according to Butler coach Brad Stevens -- and Butler felt his loss. The Bulldogs trailed by one at halftime, the product of a feisty Valpo offense and an inability to get anything going with their own offense. For lack of a better cliche, Hayward is the straw that stirs Butler's rather rich offensive milkshake. Without him, Butler's offense loses its edge.

Then again, the Bulldogs managed to get to 17-0 in the Horizon League before Friday night for reasons other than their star player, and those reasons were evident at the Athletics Recreation Center Friday night. Forward Willie Veasley's outside shooting keyed the stretch that put the Crusaders away in the second half. Forward Matt Howard -- oh, by the way, the 2008-09 Horizon League player of the year -- towers over most Horizon League forwards and can score from either side of the bucket. Shelvin Mack is strong, controlled and effcicient. Ronald Nored is a lockdown defender. Zach Hahn is a pure shooter.

OK, you get the point. Which is this: Stevens has built a very deep, very talented team, a team that managed to go an entire stretch of 18 league games without losing a single one -- the first Horizon League team to ever go 18-for-18 (the fourth to go undefeated). No off nights. Not one upset. And from day one all the way back in January, very little hope for the rest of the league.

Butler's teams are always better than their conference opponents, but rarely are they this much better. After three years at the helm, Stevens deserves much of the credit.

"He's one of the bright young coaches in Division I," Drew said. "He's done a wonderful job."

Again, bingo. At just 32 -- and yes, the man looks even younger -- Stevens hasn't just built an elite program. He's also put himself atop the nation's list of hot young coaching prospects. He's officially a "name" -- a name you should prepare to hear every time a new coaching position becomes available, which is to say, all the time. (That sound you hear is Butler fans putting their fingers in their ears and singing "la la la can't hear you la la la." Who can blame them?) For tonight, though, Stevens and his team can pocket the future for a moment and instead spend some time reflecting on their truly impressive accomplishment: an undefeated conference season.

No upsets here. Butler is your Horizon League champ. Next stop, NCAA tournament. Now things get really interesting.
VALPARAISO, Ind. -- A few quick, random, rambling thoughts from tonight's Butler win before coaches address the media:

  • As the clock ran out in the second half, Butler's 74-66 lead fully safe, Valpo's Matt Kenney launched a shot from 25 feet and drained it. It didn't matter, of course; the buzzer sounded, and the game was over. What's too bad for the Crusaders is that this was only their fourth made 3-pointer of the entire game. They missed 21. Yes, Valpo was 4-of-25 from the 3-point line Friday night, a tally that very obviously doomed the Crusaders' upset chances.
  • You have to give the Crusaders credit for their effort -- after a solid and satisfying first half, Butler came out in the second half and, with a pair of 3s and a big Matt Howard dunk, punched Valpo in the mouth. But the Crusaders kept coming. They narrowed the 40-33 lead and tied the game at 44-44 by the 13-minute mark, retaking the lead in the next minute. It's easy to see why Valpo's offense is so good: Homer Drew's team just keeps attacking the rim, over and over, and what shots they don't make they aggressively hunt down on the offensive glass. The player you could most credit for this style is versatile forward Cory Johnson, who hit a variety of big ones from inside and out throughout the game, and who was relentless in his hunt for the ball on the offensive end. Johnson finished with 28 points.
  • In the end, though, Butler had just a little bit too much -- the Bulldogs wore Valpo down in the second half, getting easier looks than in the first half, much of them coming from forward Willie Veasley. Veasley's 20 points included a couple of big shots down the stretch that helped Butler eventually pull away.
  • That's how good this Butler team is. Missing their best player, a consensus first-round draft pick, Butler still has three capable scorers in Veasley, Matt Howard, and Shelvin Mack. It's not hard to see why this team dominated the Horizon League so thoroughly: Even when their opponents play well, the talent disparity is just too much.
  • Then again, Butler isn't so good that they can go deep in the NCAA tournament if Gordon Hayward isn't on the floor. There was some ugliness on display Friday night -- for much of the first half and parts of the second, Butler looked slightly lifeless and out of synch. That can happen against the Valpos of the world. It can't happen on March 18-19, not if the Bulldogs expect to survive.
  • Brad Stevens gets a lot of attention for being so young -- the coach is 32 and in charge of one of the country's best mid-majors -- but his coaching style might be more impressive than his age. From afar, at least, Stevens rarely seems to use anger or disappointment as a motivator. He isn't screaming. He isn't ostracizing. Rather, he's constantly encouraging -- he notably offered junior Shawn Vanzant two "come on, you're better than that" high-fives after a really silly turnover -- and never, with the exception of some heated conversations with the referees, seems anything but under control. Players want to play for this type of coach.
  • Valpo senior Brandon McPherson will be disappointed with his team's loss, but the night couldn't have gone much better for him. In his last game as a Crusader -- one in which he set the Valpo mark for most games played all-time -- McPherson scored 14 points, 11 of which came in a blistering first half. With a minute left in the second, McPherson left to a rousing standing ovation and a moving postgame speech from coach Homer Drew.
  • Speaking of Drew, the coach held Brad Stevens back for the dwindling crowd, congratulating Butler on the 18-0 record and calling Stevens "one of the bright young coaches in Division 1." Valpo fans and Butler fans applauded alike. Classy move.
  • For lack of a better phrase, one that might not make all that much sense, tonight's game felt like Indiana. The Friday night schedule time, the rivalry, the packed house full of fans, the fact that 10 of Butler's 15 players just so happen to hail from various parts of the Hoosier State -- all of it added up to a game that felt like Gene Hackman should have been on the sideline with a leather satchel in his hand. And it wasn't even at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Good times.
VALPARAISO, Ind. -- If Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs want that perfect 18-0 conference record, they're going to have to earn it.

That's the lesson from Friday night's first half here, where the Bulldogs trail, 31-30, to a feisty Valpo team at halftime.

Butler is playing without leading scorer and NBA prospect Gordon Hayward -- who is sitting out with back spasms, no doubt disappointing the handful of NBA scouts in attendance -- and it shows. The Bulldogs are struggling to get into their offense, and their bigs (Matt Howard and Andrew Smith, specifically) have struggled to get clean looks on the interior.

Meanwhile, Butler is probably a little lucky not to trail by even more -- Valpo has managed to get to the hoop with regularity, and if the Crusaders, who average 38 percent from behind the arc, had made a few more threes (they were 0-for-10 in the first half) Butler would find its deficit far more overwhelming.

Willie Veasley (11 points, five rebounds, one block) has stepped up in a big way for the Bulldogs, finding productive looks off the dribble when the rest of the Bulldogs have looked offensively stagnant. It's hard to stress how much Hayward is missed; the Bulldogs clearly have the athletic ability to get good looks against a Valpo team that often seems lost on defense, but there's a lack of rhythm to Butler's offensive possessions that would be foolish not to attribute to Hayward's versatility.

Meanwhile, Valpo guard Brandon McPherson is having a dream night. In his last home game as a Crusader, the team's lone senior was honored at midcourt for Senior Night. Then, when he walked on the court, McPherson broke the Valpo all-time record for games played with 128. To top it off, he's played a very solid offensive game, leading his team with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

Pregame thoughts from Butler-Valpo

February, 26, 2010
2/26/10
8:07
PM ET
VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Butler. Valpo. It's the rumble in, um, northeast Indiana! OK, that didn't rhyme. Is Don King available? Let's get him on the line. We need a better name for this thing.

A late-season Horizon League game might not seem like such a big deal given the gap in talent between the 25-4 Bulldogs and the 15-15 Crusaders, but tonight's game has some special implications. If Butler wins, they'll go to 18-0, extending the nation's longest winning streak and, even more impressive, becoming the first Horizon League team ever to achieve a perfect 18-0 record in league play.

College basketball is not really supposed to work that way. The game is rigged. Statistical probability lingers over superior teams at all times. There are no best-of-seven series here; better players are no guarantee of success. That's why the NCAA tournament rules. Now stretch that tournament over 18 games. It takes a special team, a smart coach and, yes, a little bit of luck to remain unbeaten through a regular season. Butler's accomplishment -- avoiding upsets, night after night -- is already special. Tonight could cap it off.

To do that, the Bulldogs will have to contend with the Horizon League's most prolific scorer, Valpo sophomore Brandon Wood. Wood averages 17.9 points per game, has led Valpo in scoring in more than half of its games, and had perhaps his biggest game (albeit in a loss) in a 30-point explosion at North Carolina on Nov. 15. (Not that it matters, but that was back when we thought North Carolina was the No. 4 team in the country. Ha. Not so much.) Valpo is a young team that can score with anyone in the Horizon League -- they're No. 66 in the country in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency. The problem? Defense. The Crusaders are in the high 300's in the country in just about every important defensive category. Just look at all that red. Eesh.

Fortunately enough for Valpo, Butler's offense, while good, isn't nearly as good as its defense, which is ranked 24th in efficiency in the country. Maybe Butler comes out cold; maybe Valpo comes out hot; maybe the score stays close; maybe the Athletics Recreation Center's crowd gets really rocking. Maybe.

More likely than not, though, tonight's game will serve as a coronation for the best Horizon League season of all-time. The Bulldogs are already impressive. In 40 minutes, they could be historic.

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