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.