College Basketball Nation: Rotnei Clarke


 
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They are joined now, linked in this new Big East conglomerate that will start play next season.

And they are becoming so similar.

They are doubted. They aren’t feared at all.

Butler and Marquette have become synonymous with playing on the edge. It’s how Butler’s Brad Stevens and Marquette’s Buzz Williams coach.

Neither side tends to blow anyone out. Rarely does either get run out of a gym. Butler has had its moments this season, against VCU most notably. But they are more rare than common.

And so it was not surprising that, with a Sweet 16 bid on the line, this game -- like their meeting in Maui in November -- would come down to one final shot.

Butler couldn’t convert. Marquette won, 74-72.

“In our last eight games decided by one possession or less we’re 6-2,’’ said Williams. “We’re just good enough not to get blown out and not good enough to blow an opponent out. The quicker we can turn it into a fight, the better. If it’s a fight, then it’s going to be a one- or two-possession game.’’

The third-seeded Golden Eagles needed a Davidson turnover to get a second chance to win in the round of 64. Vander Blue made a driving layup to win that game, the same shot, though from a different side, that he hit to knock off St. John’s at Madison Square Garden to earn a three-way share of the Big East regular-season title.

“I think we’ve played more one-possession games than any team in the BCS,’’ said Williams. “We give too many teams extra possessions.’’

The NCAA tournament has mostly been kind to Butler since 2010. The sixth-seeded Bulldogs have experienced some incredible highs and one painful low -- until Saturday.

Two years ago, the Bulldogs beat a Pittsburgh team they should not have to advance. Two shots, not just one, didn’t go down in one of the most memorable finals in the past 10 years in a loss to Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010.

On Saturday, Stevens sat slumped in a chair outside the Bulldogs’ locker room, his head leaning back against a post. He was exhausted. He had seen the other side so often.

This is the cruelty of the NCAA tournament. You can have the unbelievable emotion one second only to feel agonized a moment later.

“The Pitt game was miserable for them, the Duke game was miserable for us,’’ said Stevens. “It all evens out over time. Our guys played really hard. We have nothing to hang our heads about. We ran into a team that played at a high level, especially in the second half.’’

Both teams made their share of mental mistakes to leave the game hanging on the final possession.

The final five seconds were about as harried as possible.

Marquette’s Davante Gardner had put the Golden Eagles up by four with four seconds remaining with a pair of free throws.

This happened after Butler’s Rotnei Clarke took a Marshall Henderson-like deep 3-pointer when he wasn’t closely guarded and the Bulldogs were only down two. The ball barely nicked the net.

[+] EnlargeVander Blue
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsMarquette needed all of Vander Blue's 29 points to beat Butler and advance to the Sweet 16.
Stevens said he had no problem with the shot since Clarke had done so much for Butler this season, and added that Clarke had a “neon-green light.’’

Then, for some reason after the Gardner free throws, Jamil Wilson attempted to block -- but ended up goaltending -- an Andrew Smith bucket to pull the Bulldogs to within 74-72 with two seconds remaining.

And then Marquette pulled a Davidson and messed up the inbounds pass. The ball went out of bounds; possession, Butler.

Down two, with two seconds left, Butler had a shot to tie or win.

Marquette did a great job preventing Clarke from getting the ball. Stevens said the play was on him. He had a play if Marquette went to a 2-3 zone and one if it went man. But the players didn’t recognize the defense and got confused.

Roosevelt Jones inbounded the ball to a leaning Smith, who stumbled, and hurled up an errant 3-pointer. Smith crumpled to the floor. His career over. Jones sat on the floor, too, before Williams helped him up after going through the handshake line.

Both teams were exhausted. Coming down the hallway to the locker room, Blue said he was sore. He was beaten up from a brutal game.

“If you don’t go at that team then they’ll hurt you,’’ said Blue, who finished with 29 points. “They play defense similar to Wisconsin. They’re not a shot-blocking team. You have to get to the basket and if you do you can be successful.’’

Blue said as Clarke’s 3-pointer was in the air, he had a flashback to the Maui Invitational game.

“I was like, ‘Please Rotnei, don’t make this one.’ I knew he was going to shoot it,’’ said Blue. “He’s a great player. But this is how we like it. Nobody ever panics, and it’s in our character, with all the hard work we put in this year. We wouldn’t like it any other way. We put it out there. There is something incredibly special about this team.’’

Williams amazingly still had energy after the game. He has had quite a week.

He got to Lexington and had to take his wife, Corey, to the hospital for what turned out to be appendicitis. He had two of his four children with him here in Lexington, but, luckily, had family with him to help. He spent Tuesday and Wednesday night in a Lexington hospital by Corey's bedside.

“My wife has been in the hospital in Lexington for over half our stay here,’’ said Williams. “It’s been a crazy, crazy four days in Lexington.’’

Corey was released from the hospital and is recovering. Williams was waiting to see if she could fly home Saturday night. His two boys, Calvin, 9, and Mason, 6, were with him past midnight by the locker room, wide-awake and thrilled to be going to a third straight Sweet 16.

Williams, much like Stevens, has a team that most doubt, yet never quits and plays possessions like they are valued commodities.

Butler is done for a season. Marquette is moving on. They will meet again in the Big East next season and the scripts will likely be exactly the same.

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Butler's evolution is complete.

The Bulldogs have gone from the Horizon to the A-10 to the new Big East starting next season. Along the way, they've played in two national title games.

They are no longer the cute underdog from Indianapolis.

"The Cinderella shoe doesn't fit anymore," Butler senior center Andrew Smith said.

Butler has the stature, the clout and the ingrained ability to withstand any challenge.

For Bucknell, beating Butler Thursday would have meant a great deal.

"They play in so many big games that they're not the type of team that's going to get rattled," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.

No, that wouldn't be the Butler way. Just ask Marquette, Indiana or Gonzaga this season. Sure, VCU got Butler out of whack in an early March loss, and Saint Louis did control the Bulldogs in winning three games against them.

This is not a team without flaws or the potential to lose control. But the program is in good shape.

This team has the ability to stick around in the tournament past this weekend after its 68-56 win against Bucknell at Rupp Arena.

Bucknell's NBA prospect, Mike Muscala, was forced into being a bystander at times, finishing 4-for-17 from the field and nine points. Had it not been for Joe Willman's 20 points, it wouldn't have been a game.

Smith is hardly discussed as an NBA prospect, yet he has been on the floor in winning situations against Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, Indiana's Cody Zeller and now Muscala. Smith had 16 rebounds and 14 points Thursday.

The Bulldogs wore the target well in the Horizon League when they were the primary draw. La Salle fans stormed the court after beating the Bulldogs in an A-10 game, a sign that Butler was coming of age.

Now -- in the NCAA tournament -- the Bulldogs have no issue with being the higher seed.

"It's fun, and we enjoy it," Smith said. "We always want to get everyone's best shot. It's fun for us. It makes us a great team."

Rotnei Clarke transferred from Arkansas and hadn't been part of a winning culture. He sat out last year and is playing in his one and only season at Butler.

He had never been on a team that heard its name called on Selection Sunday, let alone played in an NCAA tournament game. After the game, he described how cool this result was for him.

But what is unique is how much the Bulldogs reflect the demeanor of their coach, Brad Stevens, in close games.

They went from up seven to down six against Bucknell in the second half.

Did they fret? Hardly.

"It's calm, and it starts with our coach," Clarke said. "He's really calm, and he carries that over to us. We know we've been through big games and tough atmospheres. That got us through."

It always has for Butler. There are no more surprises. Butler is as much a part of the March landscape as any other team now. We expect it to survive and advance.

It was too bad the selection committee pitted these two programs against each other, because Bucknell also had the chops to advance in this field. But the Bison ran into a more formidable team and elite program.

"In the past, we've been Cinderella," Butler's Roosevelt Jones said. "Now we're the favorite and everyone is gunning for us. We're excited for it."
Well, Atlantic 10 fans, it's that time: The final conference power rankings of the season. I know, I know. You're sad. I'm sad, too. It's hard to say goodbye. It's hard to let go. All we can do is remember all of the times we shared, all of the laughs, and the tears we shed -- usually because of Temple -- and take those experiences with us as we fan out to take on whatever the world holds for us next. I love you all.

Let's begin:

1. Saint Louis. Saint Louis has come a long way.

I was being jokingly dramatic in the introduction, so I feel the need to make it clear that what follows actually isn't facetious at all. This week, this desk ran my colleague Dana O'Neil's typically excellent feature on Saint Louis, which details how Jim Crews and a devastated group of players -- all of whom seemed to really love Rick Majerus the way Brian Conklin loved Rick Majerus -- came together and fought through the emptiness of their coach's death to forge something positive. It hasn't been easy, on or off the court. On the court, Saint Louis stumbled in November against Santa Clara and Washington, and then later at the start of A-10 play; off the court, the Billikens learned of Majerus's death, and then served as pallbearers at his funeral. But it has all come together these past six weeks. Crews told O'Neil he never said the players needed to "honor" their departed coach with a successful season, or basketball in any form. Instead:
"We told them three things," Crews said. "First we told them to pray, have your prayers for Rick and his family. Number two, honor his lessons and laugh at the memories. And three, we said to do like Coach did: Live your life forward. Live your life forward. That's all you can do, guys."

I'm not sure there's a better or more impressive story in college basketball this season.

2. Virginia Commonwealth. VCU's total demolition of Butler last Saturday was a frustrating meta-watch, because it was the subject of a lot of gross overreaction. Yes, Butler got worked, and yes, VCU looked great. But the one-sided nature of the game was more a product of matchups: Butler doesn't handle the ball well (its point guard, Rotnei Clarke, is after all not really a point guard), and VCU absolutely shreds teams that can't take care of the ball. Hence the blowout. This is what makes VCU so dangerous, but also slightly unnerving in your bracket: If the Rams come up against a team that takes care of the ball at all costs, they haven't really proved they can get stops in a traditional way. Even so, having a style that dictates to your opponents more often than the reverse is a major advantage in the NCAA tournament. Plus, they're really fun to watch. That helps, too.

In the meantime, this conference race will come down to the final weekend. Saint Louis hosts La Salle on Saturday; VCU travels to Temple on Sunday. That is definitely the tougher assignment, but one the Rams can surely handle.

3. Butler. See above. Butler has its fair share of flaws -- too many turnovers, an inability to set up a preventative half-court defense because of them -- and all of them were exponentially exploited by VCU last Saturday. And honestly? Butler was pretty overrated for a while. Blame the victories over Indiana and Gonzaga, blame the benefit of the doubt, but the Bulldogs currently sit at No. 60 in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rankings. I don't know that they're that bad, either, and I can guarantee you no coach in the country wants to see them on their side of the NCAA tournament bracket. But there are definite issues here, issues VCU blew up and magnified for the whole world to see.

4. La Salle. The bad news for La Salle? The Explorers are only barely in the NCAA tournament bracket at this point; they're currently sitting on Joe Lunardi's No. 12 line. The good news? Everyone else on the bubble keeps falling apart. Also: La Salle's only remaining game, Saturday's trip to Saint Louis, is a no-lose situation. The selection committee won't judge La Salle too harshly if it falls to the Billikens on the road, and a decent showing in the Atlantic-10 tournament should be enough to seal the deal. Failing that, maybe Kentucky can keep losing bad games? Hey, whatever works.

5. Temple. Let's give it up for the Owls. I know, I know, I threw a shot at them in the introduction, but it was deserved -- Temple was the Atlantic 10's most sporadic team in 2012-13, which would put it high in the running for most sporadic worldwide. The Owls were capable of beating Syracuse in the Garden and losing to Canisius and Duquesne at home, and anything in between; they played five one-point games in a row, which is where luck meets insanity. But they've started to pull something reliable out of the rubble: Temple has won its past six games, many of those results not of the one-point-margin variety, and gets to close the season with a shot at VCU at home. Their bad losses have kept the Owls very much on the bubble, but you can't fault the recent work. It has been almost -- gasp -- consistent.

6. Xavier. The notion that Xavier could sneak into the NCAA tournament has seemed ridiculous for most of the season, given some of the really ugly losses and various growing pains this rebuilding (rebuilt?) Musketeers team has endured. But the late spate of home-schedule love always offered the chance for an outside push, and the Musketeers managed to split those games, dropping Memphis and Saint Louis but losing to VCU and UMass. Last on the docket is a trip to Butler, where a victory is not only a reasonable proposition but would be disproportionately attractive to the selection committee. So don't shut the front door just yet.

7. Massachusetts. Speaking of opportunities against Butler, the Minutemen had one Thursday night, and they let it get away. It has been an occasionally frustrating season for UMass fans, no doubt, because entering the season this had the look of a tournament team. If the Minutemen can't get in on this soft bubble, you'd have no choice but to call this a decent but ultimately disappointing season. But I will award some credit for style of play: In a sport dominated by slow-paced lurches, UMass has played some of the fastest basketball in the country all season long. From a purely stylistic standpoint, I salute it.

8. Saint Joseph's. I was awfully tempted to go back through every week of these power rankings and make a compendium of the times I used Saint Joe's to make the point that teams don't automatically improve just because they have a lot of returning players, but honestly, these poor Hawks fans don't need to hear it anymore. And besides, I think I've made my case. The people rest, your honor.

9. Richmond. A couple of tough losses down the stretch for the new, less-banged-up Spiders, the first at Dayton last Saturday, the latter at VCU on Wednesday. It was no surprise to see Richmond buck up for its crosstown rival, of course, but it was nice to see a relatively full-strength Spiders team showcase the efficient offense that made it such an intriguing proposition in November and December. Chris Mooney will lose senior guard Darien Brothers to graduation, but everyone else should be back, and if that's the case, the Spiders just need to play a bit better defense and they could be a tournament-type factor very soon.

10. Charlotte. Speaking of disappointing seasons, or at least disappointing finishes, how about Charlotte? The 49ers were on the very far-flung fringes of the bubble conversation even a few weeks ago. Then they lost four in a row, including home games to Dayton and Temple and the worst, Saturday's 104-83 loss at St. Bonaventure, before an 89-87 overtime escape at Duquesne on Wednesday. The upshot is that while Charlotte won't be dancing, Alan Major definitely took a couple of major steps forward with this program this season, and you can't help but think the long-term trajectory is positive.

11. Dayton. Speaking of defensively challenged teams, in the past two weeks the Flyers have won three straight. Those wins came against Charlotte, Richmond and St. Bonaventure, but still -- they showed off an offense that now ranks second in the A-10 on a per-possession basis (1.11 points per possession). That's about the highest praise I can bestow, because Dayton has had a bit of a disappointing season, too; the Flyers looked like one of several of this league's potential sleepers before the season began. Back to the drawing board this summer.

12. St. Bonaventure. If any one loss keeps UMass out of the NCAA tournament, it might be the one they suffered to the Bonnies on Feb. 20. Playing spoiler is never really where you want to be in late February and early March, but that doesn't make it any less fun once you do.

13. George Washington. The Colonials have had a really tough stretch to close the season, losing four straight against Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Saint Louis and La Salle -- and only one of those games, against Saint Louis, was in GW's own building. Give George Washington this much credit: Mike Lonergan's team defended well and got after it on the offensive glass, ranking No. 1 in the A-10 in offensive rebounding rate, and at the very least gave itself an identity as a difficult team to play. It's a start.

14. Rhode Island. Just a really nice season from the Rams and first-year coach Danny Hurley. You may look at their 8-20 record and wonder what on Earth I'm talking about. But look closer: Not only did the Rams beat Saint Louis on its own floor, they played really well in a lot of losses, giving obviously superior teams real runs for their respective monies almost every time out. A first season at a hollowed-out crater of a program like Rhody is a matter of setting a tone, of building the proverbial and much-lauded foundation, and I think Hurley and his staff can safely say they managed that much this season. Onward and upward from here.

15, 16: Duquesne, Fordham. If these final A-10 power rankings are like a high school commencement ceremony, Duquesne and Fordham are the two kids you didn't talk to or even really notice a whole lot unless they did something weird, like beat Temple on its own floor. They're also the kids upon whom you look back and wonder: I wasn't mean to them, was I?

I really hope I wasn't. It was a tough season all around, but one that wouldn't have been complete without Duquesne and Fordham along for the ride. So thanks, guys. And thanks to all of you for reading. When I said I loved you, I was only half-kidding.

Video: Butler 83, Temple 71

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Rotnei Clarke returned from injury with 24 points and nine assists as No. 9 Butler beat visiting Temple 83-71.

3-point shot: Oriakhi's crucial impact

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1. Butler's Rotnei Clarke might be this season's most important traditional transfer, one who sat out a year. But it's hard to argue against Missouri's Alex Oriakhi as the most invaluable immediate transfer. Oriakhi had 18 points, 11 boards and didn't miss any of his 10 free-throw attempts in Missouri's victory over South Carolina. Missouri coach Frank Haith said via text late Tuesday that Oriakhi had been huge for the Tigers, a presence at both ends of the court. Oriakhi's standing has been even more important with the loss of Laurence Bowers to a sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. But this is exactly what Oriakhi wanted when he left Connecticut. He wanted to play in the postseason -- but, maybe just as crucial to him, he wanted to be featured more. If Missouri is going to be relevant deeper in March, the Tigers will need Orikahi and a healthy Bowers to go along with tough-to-defend Phil Pressey.

2. No one should be stunned by Alabama's SEC resurgence. This is the same Tide team that looked like an experienced, versatile squad in winning the 2K Sports Classic in November. Alabama doesn't have the overall non-conference resume to get an NCAA bid, but the Tide have a legit chance to finish in the top three in the SEC. That doesn't guarantee a bid -- just ask Pac-12 champ Washington a year ago. Still, the Tide have improved, weathered injuries and are a tough matchup going forward. Meanwhile, let me know when anyone makes sense of NC State (loses to Wake Forest) and, suddenly, Louisville playing poorly, sloppily and without urgency in losing at Villanova.

3. The Big East's departing seven Catholic, non-FBS schools are working on an exit plan, a television deal (sources continue to say Fox has an inside track) and ultimately a commissioner. The current commish who would be a fit is the West Coast Conference's Jamie Zaninovich. He has managed a private-school conference well of late and worked at Princeton, so he is not foreign to the Northeast. He had to deal with expansion in adding BYU and, next season, Pacific. Zaninovich already has contacts in the television industry and credibility within the NCAA tournament selection committee as a member. The committee might need to be lobbied to ensure an automatic berth once the league is formed.
Five observations from Saturday’s evening games:

1. Hinkle Magic is real.

It had to end this way. We’d been spoiled with a wonderful day of college basketball -- treated to so many thrilling matchups that it was hard to keep up. Nevertheless, even with the hype surrounding Gonzaga and Butler, it was difficult to envision this game stealing the show. But that’s exactly what these two teams did. I mean, this is why we love this game. You can’t write a script that compares to the finish. Alex Barlow hits a big shot late, then commits a crucial turnover. Gonzaga commits a turnover on the inbounds, and then Roosevelt Jones charges toward the bucket for the game-winner. I couldn’t believe it. The Bulldogs played without standout Rotnei Clarke, who’d suffered a neck injury in last Saturday's victory over Dayton. Butler, however, didn’t back down from a Gonzaga team that is one of the most talented assemblies in America. The Zags shot 47.1 percent from the field. Elias Harris, Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk combined to score 54 points. Butler wasn’t rattled, though. With just seconds on the clock, the Bulldogs maintained their intensity. They also maintained their pressure, which led to a game-winning bucket and a court-storming that actually made sense. What a game. What a day.

2. Deshaun Thomas needs help.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Thomas
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Thomas scored 28 points on 10-for-20 shooting; no other Buckeye had more than six.
So, if you watched the final seconds of Michigan State’s 59-56 victory over Ohio State, you’re probably still wondering what happened on Shannon Scott's 3-point attempt in the last seconds. Scott, who was trailed by Thomas, took an off-balance attempt that scraped the backboard on Ohio State’s final possession. But don’t blame him for the loss. Thomas (28 points) is the most dynamic offensive player in the Big Ten. He’s surrounded, however, by inconsistent offensive contributors. And that was the greatest component in the loss. Michigan State was led by Keith Appling (15 points) and Adreian Payne (14 points, five rebounds and a steal), who apparently has new life after a recent scuffle with teammate Branden Dawson. But three other Spartans recorded at least eight points. Thomas was alone. Aaron Craft (2-for-8) struggled. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (2-for-7) struggled. Scott (1-for-5) struggled. And while the Buckeyes proved that they possess the talent to contend for the Big Ten crown when they defeated Michigan last weekend, they revealed their offensive limitations in Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. Again.

3. The Mountain West is a beautiful mess.

You think your favorite league is wacky? Air Force scored 91 points in a win over Boise State. UNLV beat San Diego State on the road earlier this week but couldn’t handle Colorado State (Dorian Green scored a career-high 24 points). San Diego State scored nine points … in the first half of a loss to Wyoming. You figure it out. The Mountain West is Big Ten Lite. Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket features six MWC squads. And it’s a nine-team league. But Saturday was a good showcase for the conference. Wyoming held SDSU to a 2-for-18 clip from the 3-point line. Jamaal Franklin went 3-for-14 from the field. Colorado State is a gritty, rough team. Khem Birch, Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser combined to score just 18 points in UNLV’s loss to the Rams, who also forced 13 turnovers. This race is wide open, filled with quality programs -- six Mountain West squads ranked in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. And the other three -- Air Force, Nevada and Fresno State -- aren't what anyone would call terrible. Hell of a league.

4. Marquette and Cincinnati love drama.

Saturday was a great day for college basketball. And this game was one of its most exciting matchups. Cincinnati amassed a 29-13 halftime lead with a defensive attack that’s ranked eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. It was an impressive start for a Bearcats squad that had to go without Cashmere Wright, who missed the game due to a knee injury. But Cincy goes through scoring droughts. And Marquette loves drama. It was the perfect combination. The Golden Eagles lost to Butler on a Rotnei Clarke buzzer-beater in the Maui Invitational. They’re 2-1 in overtime games since Jan. 1. And they beat Georgetown by a point after fouling Greg Whittington on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds of an earlier Big East meeting. On Saturday, Marquette cut into Cincy’s deficit and ultimately forced overtime because UC eventually remembered that it rarely scores when necessary. The Bearcats were shorthanded due to foul trouble in a feisty extra session, but they sealed it on Sean Kilpatrick's layup with six seconds to play. It wasn’t pretty, but it was entertaining. Based on everything that had transpired in the final seconds, I figured Junior Cadougan would make his shot on the other end and send the 71-69 matchup into a second overtime. I think Cincinnati made a statement about its standing in the Big East, especially with Syracuse toppling Louisville on the same day. But Marquette also proved that it can contend with the league’s best teams. But it’s too hot-and-cold to trust as a true contender. Imagine if Buzz Williams’ squad were more consistent. At least it’s always interesting.

5. Iowa shakes up the Big Ten.

Thanks, Iowa. I thought I’d finally figured out the Big Ten until you beat Wisconsin 70-66 just four days after the Badgers upset the Hoosiers in Bloomington. It’s a cliché statement by now, but the Big Ten continues to prove that it’s the best conference in America. And this is why. A team such as Wisconsin can go on the road and beat one of the most talented squads in America (Indiana) and, less than a week later, suffer a loss at Iowa. Michigan beat the Hawkeyes by nearly 30 points. A few weeks later, Iowa takes Wisconsin down and re-enters the at-large conversation. The Hawkeyes committed just six turnovers in a game that featured a 20-point Iowa lead in the first half. Wisconsin shot poorly early but stormed back after halftime. It just wasn’t enough. Coaches around the league have talked about this for a few weeks now: The champion of this conference could have four or five losses. Maybe more. No squad has truly separated itself from the Big Ten pack. And it’s difficult to see how any team will when you have eight squads that could qualify for NCAA tournament berths. What a league.

A few more notes:

  • Alabama is 3-1 in the SEC after a 50-49 win over Texas A&M. Look, the SEC is not a strong conference. But Bama was in bad shape entering league play. Looks like Anthony Grant’s program is moving in the opposite direction now. Let’s see if the Crimson Tide can sustain it.
  • Detroit outscored Illinois-Chicago 53-14 in the first half of a 98-47 victory Saturday. I picked Illinois-Chicago to win the Horizon League at the start of league play. That was a great choice. Except it wasn’t.
  • So 4-0 Washington's first Pac-12 loss comes to 0-4 Utah at home in Seattle? Well OK then. Makes about as much sense as Oregon State dropping to 0-5 in the league after Saturday's loss to USC.
The Atlantic 10 is deep. We've known this would be the case since the summer, when VCU and Butler joined a year early (a year before Temple was set to leave for the Big East), and we're seeing it play out on a nightly basis now that conference play is in full swing. Let's get to the rankings:

1. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams got all they could handle and more at home against Saint Joseph's on Thursday night. Frankly, down four with 14 seconds left, they probably should have lost the game in regulation. But Troy Daniels made a huge 3, Ronald Roberts missed the front end of a double bonus, and Darius Theus scrambled past a standstill Hawks defense to tie the score at 80 with just 6 seconds remaining. The Hawks, totally gassed, had no chance in overtime, and VCU handled business and came away with the win -- its 12th in a row. And man, are VCU wins -- or, for that matter, losses -- fun to watch.

2. Butler. Despite the loss of Rotnei Clarke to a scary neck injury -- which required a stretcher and a trip to the hospital, but which thankfully turned out to be a neck sprain -- the Bulldogs held on to win at Dayton on Saturday. They followed that up with an easy home victory over Richmond. Now comes the fun part. On Saturday, Brad Stevens and company will host Gonzaga in Hinkle Fieldhouse as the first "College GameDay" location of the season, and the first in Hinkle's 85-year history. Clarke will still be missing, and Butler will have to guard Gonzaga's efficient offense better than it has guarded anyone all season. Thus far, Butler ranks eighth in the conference in points allowed per possession, and first in per-possession scoring. The Bulldogs can really light it up, but they're still getting there on the defensive end.

3. Saint Louis
3a. Temple.

At this point, I'm willing to consider Saint Louis and Temple as essentially equals, power-rankings-wise. The Billikens lost in Philly last Saturday 64-54, but if we're not willing to forgive road losses in the A-10 then I'm going to have to overreact and downvote everybody at least once a week. After all, Temple scored only 52 points in 63 possessions at Xavier just a few days after pushing Kansas to the limit in Allen Fieldhouse. Point is, these two teams appear to be the third- and fourth-best in the league. Or fourth- and third-best, depending on your perspective and/or allegiances. But they're clearly a notch above the rest.

5. Massachusetts. Last week, I moved up UMass despite my season-long doubts because I watched all 40 minutes of its effort at Saint Louis, and it impressed me. But for a few mistakes down the stretch, and a few heady plays by the Billikens' veterans, Derek Kellogg's team might well have won that game. I see no reason to move UMass down this week. Sure, its 77-73 win at Fordham wasn't pretty, but it was a win, and UMass moved to 2-1 in A-10 play with a home win over Duquesne on Thursday night. I said this last week, and it bears repeating: On a per-possession basis, the Minutemen aren't much to look at. Per KenPom.com, their offense ranks outside the top 130, as does their defense. They don't have one particular statistical trait -- other than pace, where they average 73 possessions a game -- that will impress you. But as much as I lean on tempo-free stats, the Minutemen are 12-4 without a bad loss to their name. I'm willing to keep them here until those forgettable efficiency stats start to turn into Ls.

6. Saint Joseph's. At the end of Thursday night's loss at VCU, you could just see it: shoulders sagging, chests heaving, legs cramping -- the Hawks were done. Even the tirelessly wing-flapping Hawk mascot looked to be losing steam. It was that kind of a night, particularly when VCU forced overtime, but win or lose, the first 40 minutes were a valiant effort, and a really positive sign for a team that to date (as we discussed last week) hasn't looked much different from last season's 20-14 group. Perhaps the biggest difference Thursday was the return of Langston Galloway's shooting stroke. Last season, Galloway led the A-10 in 3-point field goal percentage at 46.6 percent; this season, he's shooting just 35.6. But he was 5-for-9 Thursday night, a figure that included a number of key buckets. If he can split the difference and just make around 40 percent, and if Carl Jones and C.J. Aiken can pressure opposing defenses as they pressured the league's best, this team might yet be going places.

7. Charlotte. The 49ers have begun the A-10 season 3-0, but that was to be expected: Their first three opponents were La Salle (home), Rhode Island (away) and Fordham (home). Indeed, at 15-2, Charlotte's only win over an opponent ranked in the KenPom top 100 is La Salle; no one else is ranked higher than 110. I don't say that as a method of detraction, though; there are real things to like about this team. Through three A-10 games, the 49ers have been the conference's best per-possession defense (allowing just 0.86 points per trip), they've rebounded about 35 percent of their misses this season, and they get to the line frequently on the offensive end. They just turn the ball over too often, and when they don't, don't shoot it particularly well, either. Needless to say, it'll be interesting to see what happens when the 49ers go on the road, beginning Saturday at Richmond.

8. La Salle. The Explorers toughed out a 72-70 home win over Dayton Wednesday, a game in which neither team carved more than a two-possession margin and which could have gone either way through the final minute. La Salle scored 1.01 points per possession; Dayton scored 0.99. It was that tight. It's the kind of win we might not remember in detail in March, when all of the results are in and we're comparing 30 at-large tournament resumes at a time. But it was a really great home-court stand, especially with a trip to Xavier up next.

9. Xavier. Should we be giving Xavier credit for its 3-0 league start? Absolutely. The Musketeers did, after all, hold Temple to 52 points on Jan. 10. And, for that matter, they did manage to get out of St. Bonaventure's gym with a 66-64 victory Wednesday. Next up is La Salle on Saturday, and if Xavier scores as it has in its first three games -- at 1.11 points per trip, it currently wields the league's second-most-efficient offense -- the Musketeers could very easily go to 4-0.

10. Dayton. When Archie Miller first looked at his team's Atlantic 10 schedule, he must have been at least a little exasperated. If he wasn't then, he is now. The Flyers kicked off conference play with a game at VCU, a home loss to Butler, and a trip to LaSalle, where the Explorers held the aforementioned line. Fortunately, it gets easier: Dayton is off until next Wednesday, when it gets Fordham at home, followed by Duquesne.

11. Richmond. Perhaps the three-point home win over Rhode Island on Jan. 9 wasn't a fluky off night but in fact a sign that this Richmond team just isn't very good after all. At that point, despite their defensive struggles, the Spiders were still playing efficient offense. And sure, they've had to deal with trips to La Salle and Butler. But still, they've scored just 0.91 PPP, and allowed 1.05, in those three games. If Richmond is putting points on the board it at least has a shot, but if it doesn't, the defense isn't nearly good enough to keep the Spiders out of the cellar.

12. George Washington. The Colonials nearly nipped Temple on Wednesday night, but instead suffered a 55-53 home loss. Simply put, this offense is bad: GW has exactly one player (reserve Dwayne Smith) whose offensive rating is above 102 (100 is about average). The Colonials rank No. 250 in the country in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency ranking. They can guard people, but man do they struggle to score.

13. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies are sort of the polar opposite of George Washington: They score pretty well, and get good, efficient scoring from Demitrius Conger and Chris Johnson, but they've allowed 1.05 points per trip to opposing offenses this season, and that's simply not going to get the job done -- especially considering their early A-10 schedule. After dropping home games to VCU and Xavier, St. Bonaventure now has to tangle with Temple (Saturday) and Saint Joe's (Wednesday) on the road. Ouch.

14. Rhode Island. The theme of the Rams' season has been their effort. They might not be ready to compete yet, but they are making opponents earn their victories: They nearly got Richmond on the road Jan. 9, and they played Charlotte tight at home Saturday. One guesses their trip to Saint Louis this weekend won't go quite as well.

15. Fordham.
16. Duquesne.


Maybe it's a sign of how tight this league is, or maybe the middle of the league just isn't ruthless at putting bad teams away, but neither of these teams is getting blown out. Fordham tested both UMass and Charlotte (and lost by a combined 10 points); Duquesne lost by eight to Saint Joe's. So, you know, there's that.
It is impossible to be a sports fan and not be horrified from time to time. Sometimes that horror is the product of a close-up shot of Oakland Raiders fans, but every now and then it comes from seeing an athlete take a hit in the head or neck and watching as that athlete goes limp, watching him be carefully attended to by concerned doctors, watching him carted off on a stretcher. Such moments shock us out of the euphoria of a game. They remind us of our corporeal limits. They make our stomachs churn.

Butler guard Rotnei Clarke was the victim of one such incident in the first half of Butler's 79-73 win at Dayton. Clarke was fouled by the Flyers' Matt Derenbecker on a fast break when he careened head-first into the padded basket stanchion. He fell to the floor and remained there for eight minutes, before he was taken off on a stretcher and moved to nearby Miami Valley Hospital. It was the kind of freaky injury aftermath that looks not only like the end of a season or a career, but the end of a player's way of life. Clarke could easily have been paralyzed.

Instead, Clarke survived. Butler trainer Ryan Gallow told the Indy Star's David Woods that Clarke's spinal cord and cervical discs were fine, and that the injury was a "significant neck sprain." That could cause Clarke to miss a few games, maybe more. But considering the possibility, it was a pretty positive outcome.

The question is how quickly Clarke can be cleared for contact and return to the Bulldogs' lineup. Currently, there is no timetable for that return. Coach Brad Stevens told Woods that Clarke would not play until "he's 100 percent ready and cleared." But Clarke's father, Conley Clarke, had a different diagnosis Sunday:
“If they’re thinking about not letting him play Saturday,” the father said, “they’re going to have to take him to another county.”

He's referring, of course, to Butler's game against the No. 8-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, a matchup of the two marquee mid-major programs of the last decade and the first time ESPN's "College GameDay" show will come to you live from glorious Hinkle Fieldhouse. In December, after Butler toppled then-No. 1 Indiana, Clarke told me that's why he came to Butler -- to play in and win big games, to be a part of the major moments this program has specialized in since Stevens took over in 2007. Saturday is about as big of a regular-season game as Butler has. If Clarke isn't cleared to play, I'm guessing it's best everyone listens to his dad.

New league, same Butler

January, 9, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- You could almost see the old-time members puffing out their collective chests back in October.

You want a piece of this, kid? Think your pretty Final Four rings have any sway here? This ain’t no Horizon League, buddy.

And so when the preseason Atlantic 10 polls came out, there was Butler, slated sixth -- behind Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Temple, VCU and UMass.

Feel free to chuckle at that stroke of genius now.

Yes, the Bulldogs made the jump from the Horizon League to the more challenging A-10. Yes, Butler played in the CBI a season ago while the Hawks were in the NIT.

Except this is Butler. Anyone been paying attention the past few seasons?

This league may not run through Indianapolis with the same annual detour as the Horizon, but it will certainly make it least a regular pit stop.

Butler made sure everyone knew that on Wednesday night when the would-be sixth-place finishers disposed of the favorites, 72-66 for its first A-10 victory.

It was gritty and feisty, hard-fought and, at times, nasty.

Butler’s way, if not The Butler Way.

"I’m really proud of how we stayed the course," coach Brad Stevens said. "They executed their plan to about a T, but we stayed the course. Nobody panicked."

You could say it is because Butler has been in big games, little games, big arenas, small gyms, hostile places, hallowed Hinkle and just about every other environment college basketball can create.

[+] EnlargeButler's Andrew Smith
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Smith, left, and Rotnei Clarke combined to score 52 of Butler's 72 points against Saint Joseph's.
You could say it’s because Andrew Smith reigns as the only player in the country with two Final Four appearances on his résumé. You could say its because Rotnei Clarke cut his teeth in the SEC.

Or you could just offer the simplest and cleanest explanation: Butler is good. And always will be so long as Stevens is at the helm.

Count against them with the same confidence you’d use betting against Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State or any other perennially solid programs.

New league, unfamiliar opponents, new scouting reports and yet the Bulldogs are the lone ranked team in the Atlantic 10 right now.

Opposing schools already hate them for it, too.

St. Joe’s students welcomed Butler to the A-10 with a chorus of boos. In plenty of the nation’s households the Bulldogs may be America’s sweethearts, but in opposing gyms they are the rich new kids on the block -- instantaneously despicable.

"I didn’t really hear them booing me until I was down on the baseline by them," Clarke said. "But I think that’s what you work for. That’s why you put in all the extra hours in the gym, so you can go on the road to tough venues, make big shots and quiet the crowd."

In the end this particular game didn’t come down to The Butler Way or anything so cerebral.

The Bulldogs had better players, two of them to be exact.

It’s not often -- or maybe ever -- that Stevens finds himself caught off guard. He has built a career and a reputation on a combination of lethal analytics and preparedness that a Boy Scout would envy.

Yet there was St. Joseph's Chris Wilson draining four 3-pointers in the first five minutes and C.J. Aiken knocking down three more in the second.

That wasn’t in the script. The two combined were 10-of-66 from the arc coming into the game, so applying good logic, Stevens elected to sag off of them defensively and concentrate more on Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, St. Joe’s two leading scorers.

"You pick and choose your spots, and for about 30 minutes I chose wrong," he said.

The bailout came in the form of Clarke & Smith, a company slightly more reliable than AIG.

Clarke, whose range is from the opposite basket in, has provided the offensive spark last season’s Bulldog team sorely missed. He spent his evening ducking, dodging, running around, through and over every sort of roadblock St. Joe’s set for him. When the game ended, you half-wished he had worn a pedometer.

It all added up to 28 points, including six from behind the 3-point arc.

With Clarke stretching the floor, his partner found open space under the rim. Smith knew he couldn’t jump with Ronald Roberts or C.J. Aiken so he didn’t even try. He made sure he kept his position and created space to get off his favorite hook shot.

He did it to the tune of 24 points.

For those keeping score, that’s 52 of the Bulldogs’ 72 points for Clarke & Smith.

"C.J. Aiken was the defensive player of the year in our league, and there was nothing he could do," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "They’re wonderful players."

And really that’s the essence of what makes Butler special.

Basketball isn’t rocket science, really. Good players win, and Stevens has a knack for finding them. Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and now Smith & Clarke.

How’d you like a piece of that?
PHILADELPHIA -- Here’s a quick look at Butler’s 72-66 victory over Saint Joseph’s:

Overview: Welcome to the Atlantic 10, Butler. Isn’t this going to be fun? To the rest of the nation, the Bulldogs are the plucky underdogs. Here, they are the hated and hunted big boys with the national brand name. Saint Joseph’s students actually booed the Bulldogs when they took the court -- borderline blasphemy anywhere else.

Butler got all it could handle and then some from a Hawks team hungry (borderline desperate) for a signature victory to bolster its NCAA résumé. The Bulldogs ultimately won because they had the better players -- two of them, to be exact. Andrew Smith and Rotnei Clarke did all of the offensive work for the Bulldogs, helping them to their first win in the A-10.

Turning point: With Butler trailing 56-54 in a game that was tight from the opening tip, Saint Joseph's forward Ronald Roberts tried for a highlight-reel reverse dunk on an alley-oop but clanked it. On the next possession, Clarke drained a 3-pointer. Butler (13-2, 1-0 A-10) never trailed again.

Key player: Split the difference between Clarke and Smith. They were the best players on the floor. Clarke threw daggers from outside and controlled the game from the point. Smith dominated in the paint, using his trademark jump hook.

Key stat: More like key number. It’s 52. That’s how many points Clarke (28) and Smith (24) combined for, doing all of the work for the Bulldogs to secure their first league win.

Miscellaneous: This was Butler’s first official Atlantic 10 game. The Bulldogs, who handed then-No. 1 Indiana its lone loss, were picked to finish sixth in the league. Saint Joe’s was the predicted winner in the preseason. … The game was the first sellout of the season for the Hawks (8-5, 0-1). … The last time the two teams met was 1941 at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Next game: The Hawks travel to Duquesne on Saturday; Butler visits Dayton the same day.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

1. Virginia Commonwealth. In my experience, Butler fans are not only some of the nicest people around, there's also eminently reasonable. By and large, each week I've ranked VCU above the Bulldogs, Butler fans have typically (not always, but typically) responded with some version of "I'm a Butler fan, but that's cool. That VCU team is good."

Call it the Pax Atlanta: This year, this league's two teams (at least to date) are also its two newest, recent products of conference realignment, 2011 mid-major Dance-crashing brothers in arms, with mutual respect for each other's young star coaches and greatly contrasting styles of play. That's the vibe I'm picking up, anyway, and it has been refreshing to see -- even after that victory over Indiana -- Bulldogs fans take a step back and look at just what this VCU team is doing and say, "Yeah, you know? They're really good too."

Because they are: After their latest offensive explosion against East Tennessee State -- in which guard Troy Daniels made 11-of-20 from 3, for 33 points and 10 rebounds -- this year's Rams team is mixing its typically fantastic ball-hawking defense (VCU forces both turnovers and pure steals at the highest rate in the country) with efficient, balanced, long-range offense. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and with A-10 play picking up, it's only going to get better.

2. Butler. What's most interesting about this Butler team to date is not that the Bulldogs are good. I expected that, and I was hardly alone. What's interesting is how Butler is good. To wit:


See? Butler has made a sudden and drastic shift, from a putrid offense with a stubborn defense to much more efficient scoring with a much more forgiving defense. The obvious culprits -- not that this is a bad thing, because man was Butler hard to watch last season -- are the additions of sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham in place of defensive specialist Ronald Nored and frustrating shooting guard Chrishawn Hopkins. But Andrew Smith has also taken his game to another level, Roosevelt Jones is a great glue type, and Butler is actually shooting the ball disproportionately better inside the arc than outside it. Perhaps the threat of Clarke and Dunham launching from range is as important as the execution. Whatever it is, it's working.

3. Temple. We discussed Temple -- or, rather, the reaction to Temple's Dec. 22 road win over Syracuse -- in great detail last week, so we won't spend too much time breaking the Owls down this week. Instead, a heads up: On Sunday, Temple travels to Kansas. If they win there, I will put the Owls No. 1 in next week's rankings. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, it would be awesome to see -- especially because it would give Canisius transitive-property bragging rights over both Syracuse and Kansas. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

4. Saint Louis. New Year's Eve was big for the Billikens in a couple of different ways. For one, guard Kwamain Mitchell made just his second appearance of the season after returning from a November injury, and with 29 minutes Monday was his first return to full-time duty. Oh, and there's this: Saint Louis beat New Mexico at home, 60-46. The game came just a couple of days after New Mexico fought hard for a win at Cincinnati (before Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh and got what might end up as one of the most impressive road wins of the season), so you could forgive UNM for being a little worn out with the road trip by the time they passed under the Arch. But no matter, that's a really nice home win for Jim Crews' bunch, one that should stand the test of time as it pertains to the NCAA tournament at-large picture. With Mitchell healthy, this team is a real A-10 title challenger. But we knew that already.

5. Saint Joseph's. The Hawks move back into the top five almost by default this week thanks to some of the second-tier teams' performances, but their own struggles (in addition to Xavier's) appear to have made the Atlantic 10 not quite as elite-deep as it appeared to be back when everyone was jocking St. Joe's in the offseason. The Hawks' issues have primarily come by being a bit soft on defense -- they neither force turnovers nor protect their own glass -- and their offense hasn't been good enough.

6. La Salle. After a second-half collapse, La Salle took an L at Miami on Wednesday, which isn't an incriminating loss: Even without injured forward Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes are really tough at home. So if you're willing to forgive La Salle its Nov. 18 home loss to Central Connecticut State (and I am, because it was Nov. 18) and are willing to dive into some of the Explorers' tempo-free numbers (you know it), you'll find an above-average offense led by senior Ramon Galloway, which is thus far carrying a below-average defense that gets, according to Synergy scouting services, absolutely shredded by opponents' pick-and-rolls. That play set has dragged down the Explorers' entire half-court defense (they do a nice job in transition, partially because they don't turn the ball over often on the other end of the floor), and could be one fruitful adjustment to make to start the A-10 season.

7. Dayton. So, I'm a little bit torn on Dayton's latest result. That result? A 63-61 overtime loss at USC. Why am I torn? Because on the one hand, USC is pretty objectively bad. On the other hand, USC has played a brutal nonconference schedule, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams have tended to pick up steam (especially defensively) as the season goes along, and you get the feeling that Dayton won't be the only team held to .79 points per trip on USC's floor this season.

8. Charlotte. Charlotte is shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The good news? Charlotte rarely attempts 3-pointers. So at least the 49ers are self-aware. Unfortunately, this has made their offense a bit one-dimensional, and despite the gaudy 12-2 record Alan Major's team is still barely scoring more than a point per trip overall this season. Meanwhile, its victory at Davidson remains the only real sign that this team is considerably better than it was last season. The A-10 campaign will tell us much.

9. Xavier. It will be interesting to see how we look back on Xavier's four-game late-December losing streak. Will it become part of a young-team-comes-together narrative? There's still plenty of time for that, after all, and no A-10 fan is willing to count out the Musketeers before conference play even begins. But my hunch is that this team just isn't all that good, at least not yet; it doesn't have any area of the game in which it really excels.

10. Richmond. The Spiders, on the other hand, have an identity: They score the basketball. Richmond's offense is still top-40 good, efficiency-wise, and the Spiders get after people on the defensive end, forcing opponents into a turnover on 24.4 percent of their possessions. But the defense is suspect in all of the other important factors, and while you can sing the praises of an efficient offense all you want, Richmond hasn't beaten anyone even remotely good (including George Mason and Davidson, the latter a home loss).

11. Massachusetts. Thus far this season, Massachusetts has scored .983 points per trip. It has allowed .990. This is obviously not a sustainable winning formula. But the Minutemen do have one thing in their favor: pace. Per KenPom.com, Massachusetts crams the third-highest number of possessions (adjusted for competition) into 40 minutes in the country: 74.6. You can see, with a guard as quick as Chaz Williams, why coach Derek Kellogg would want to get out and run. The problem is that UMass hasn't really guarded anybody, and shoots a lot of 3s despite knocking down just 30.2 percent to date. UMass fans seem convinced this team is drastically underrated here, but I'm not seeing it, at least not yet.

12. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies, at least, can knock down shots. Indeed, at 7-5 this may be one of the sneaky-underrated teams in the league right now. The Bonnies have three efficient senior guards going right now (Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley, who comes off the bench and has the highest offensive rating on the team) and 6-foot-8 junior forward Marquise Simmons has been especially effective on the glass, too. Last week, I made the comment that Mark Schmidt's team was especially generous to opposing 3-point shooters, and that at some point we had to consider that a flaw; as one commenter corrected me, that might not actually be the case. If opponents cool off a little bit, this team's defense won't look so questionable.

13. George Washington. George Washington is the opposite of St. Bonaventure: The Colonials' offense is ugly (.967 points per trip) but its defense is actually a top-50 unit, allowing just .899 points per trip thus far. I'll be interested to see if GW can steal a win at a bad Georgia team Friday night, and if so, whether our perception of the Colonials as a total low-end A-10 also-ran this season ought to change.

14. Duquesne. Back-to-back road losses are no big deal. Back-to-back road losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State mean you're probably not very good. (Anyone who has seen Penn State play is nodding his or her head while reading this.)

15. Rhode Island. The Dec. 27 game at Saint Mary's was never going to be a win, so it's not like the opinion of the Rams has changed much. And conference season is going to be tough. But it was good to see first-year coach Dan Hurley coax a few wins out of his rebuilding squad before league play begins.

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.

Conference Power Rankings: A-10

December, 7, 2012
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1. Virginia Commonwealth. It's another edition of the much-requested Atlantic 10 conference power rankings, and we already have a new rightful heir to the throne. The margin between VCU and St. Joe's is slim, in my opinion, and it feels tough to drop the Hawks based off a loss at Creighton … but all of VCU's losses were close, tight games against good teams. More than anything, though? With that top-15 ranking efficiency defense and the brutal-as-ever HAVOC system wreaking, well, you know, on opposing guards, I just think VCU's better.

2. Saint Joseph's. Which is not to say St. Joe's isn't good. If you're ranked this high in this year's A-10, you're pretty good. But all of a sudden that neutral-court loss to Florida State isn't looking so flattering, and neither was Saturday's 80-51 blowout at Creighton. Tuesday brings a game at Villanova, which will be pretty fascinating, but more important than anything is that C.J. Aiken breaks out of this 4-for-24 long-range slump he's on to start the season.

3. Temple. Despite my eyeballs' love of this Temple team -- I was hooked from the first moments of the Tip-Off Marathon game, bleary though I was -- I was hesitant to place the Owls above Butler last week simply because they hadn't really beaten anyone good. This week, Temple won by 15 at Villanova, and while Jay Wright's team isn't what I'd classify as "good," a 15-point win is a kind of statement. On Saturday, Temple gets Duke in East Rutherford, N.J., where the crowd will be largely Duke partisans. That, my friends, is going to be interesting.

4. Butler. Nothing new on the Bulldogs, really. Since they got back from Maui, they've been teeing off on guarantee wins (IUPUI was the latest victim Wednesday night), but Saturday -- when Butler travels to Evanston, Ill., to face Northwestern -- is a decidedly trickier challenge. It's hard to know what to make of the feast-or-famine Wildcats, so this game might not give us a reliable impression. But it will be interesting to see how Rotnei Clarke and Co. handle a true road test and some solid size on the interior.

5. Charlotte. OK, Charlotte fans. Here you go. After seven season-opening wins, it was easy to dismiss the 49ers as a mere product of their totally awful schedule. But the wins were getting better -- Oral Roberts, Northeastern and East Carolina are various shades of not-horrible -- even before Charlotte won at Davidson, 73-69, Wednesday night. That is an indisputably quality win, and, as such, I am giving the 49ers the "love" their fans seem to so desperately crave. And understandably so. It has been a long road back to relevance, and there is much more basketball to play -- and I tend to doubt Alan Major's bunch will be ranked this high more often than not -- but Charlotte appears to be a top-half A-10 team and a potential tournament squad. Who knew?

6. Saint Louis. The Billikens have not had the most emotionally easy week -- the death of former coach Rick Majerus hit hard -- but a day after they found out Majerus had passed, they got a 13-point home win over Valpo, a defensive win Majerus himself would have loved. Wednesday's victory over North Texas was nice, too, even if the Tony Mitchell-led Mean Green have underperformed expectations thus far this season. As long as the Billikens tread water until the return of Kwamain Mitchell, you have to like their prospectus.

7. Xavier. The Musketeeers had a mixed bag of a week, the kind of week you expect to see from a team this young. To wit: Last Saturday, Xavier went to Purdue (another young, inconsistent, promising team) and came away with a win, no small feat in front of that crazy Mackey Arena crowd. Then, Thursday night, Xavier lost at home to Vanderbilt. Last year, that would have been a totally acceptable loss. This year, Vandy's looking pretty rough. I still the Musketeers are to be reckoned with in the A-10 race, but it might take a little time to work out all the youthful kinks.

8. Dayton. Ahhh, Dayton. Never change. Last week, I said Dayton appeared set for another baffling and frustrating season; one commenter, "whitegrb," described it as "Get some big wins against BCS conference opponents, lose some bad games against 1-bid-mid-major conference teams." You know what's funny? That was before Dayton won at Alabama on Wednesday! That is the same good Alabama team, by the way, that nearly took down an even better Cincinnati team on its home floor Saturday. On Nov. 28, Dayton lost at home to Weber State. I'm not sure how to square any of this analytically, and I'm not sure it's possible. (Matchups? Inconsistency? Dayton fans, please help?) But I do know this: If you win at Alabama, you move up in the power rankings. That part's easy.

9. La Salle. La Salle feels destined to stay under the radar in the A-10 this season, but it remains a real sleeper, and fortunately it has made a decent impression thus far. The latest came Wednesday night, when Ramon Galloway and the Explorers absolutely blitzed an overwhelmed Penn State group 81-57 at the Palestra. An away game at (a very good) Bucknell on Dec. 15 will be this team's next best chance at a marquee nonconference win.

10. Richmond. Like La Salle, it feels a little like Chris Mooney's team is being slept on, because from an efficiency standpoint their offense is pretty great. In fact, it is the 37th-most efficient offense in the country through nine games, per KenPom.com. The Spiders have more issues on defense, and it's hard to go head over heels for a team that has beaten a lot of ugly opponents and lost to Minnesota and Ohio by a combined score of 40 points.

11. Massachusetts. Last Saturday, the Minutemen had a tailor-made opportunity to impress, when Miami -- fresh off a home upset of Michigan State -- came to Amherst for a true road game. UMass lost by 13. The wins over Harvard and Providence were nice season-openers, but since then UMass has been soundly beaten by the only teams anyone would be impressed if UMass beat. I'm torn, but let's give them time.

12. St. Bonaventure. It's a little bit crazy that we can go this deep in the Atlantic 10 and still not be willing to write off the team you're discussing from eventual NCAA tournament competition. Which is not to say the Bonnies are good; they've played a horrific schedule thus far. But their only losses (Canisius, Ohio) came on the road, and they really haven't been that bad, considering the loss of Andrew Nicholson this offseason.

13. Duquesne. Say this much for Duquesne: It is adept at preventing opponents from going to the free throw line. And three of the Dukes' four losses (Georgetown, Pittsburgh, and North Dakota State, which is better than you think) are nothing to scoff at. But this team is pretty miserable at the offensive end, and the defense hasn't been much better, either.

14. George Washington. The Colonials gave Bradley a real run on the road Tuesday, and it's always nice to see a team really contend on the road, even if Bradley isn't likely to be a Missouri Valley Conference power. Thus far, George Washington has defended relatively well. But the Colonials have been really bad on the offensive end, because they give up the third-highest rate of steals in the country and, as such, are constantly turning it over.

15. Rhode Island. For as bad as Rhode Island is supposed to -- OK, is going to -- be, you have to tip your cap for its work in the three games before Thursday's 72-57 loss at Providence. The Rams beat Auburn in double overtime on Nov. 25, lost at home to a just-OK George Mason team by three, and then beat Vermont by 10 Saturday. Before that stretch, they played Ohio State to within 11, Seton Hall to within five, and Loyola-Maryland to a four-point overtime loss. Let's be clear: Rhode Island is not good. But first-year coach Dan Hurley has the Rams playing hard, and they could spring a few upsets as they rebuild.

16. Fordham. It's going to be a rough season at Fordham. Tom Pecora's team has played a brutal schedule so far -- the Rams have had exactly one true home game in eight games to date -- and it doesn't get any easier with trips to St. John's, Princeton (in Brooklyn) and Connecticut on the immediate horizon.

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- For the first two games of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Butler Bulldogs looked like giant-killers, circa 2010 and 2011.

A buzzer-beater versus Marquette followed by a thumping of North Carolina in the semifinals set them up for another magical run, this time in Maui.

Unfortunately for coach Brad Stevens and his upstart Bulldogs, Illinois had other plans.

The Fighting Illini, behind strong performances from guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams, defeated Butler 78-61 in Wednesday's championship game.

While the game itself was periodically tight, the Illini led the entire way. With 10 minutes, 49 seconds left to go in the first half, they got their first double-digit lead and the Bulldogs got it down to single digits for only a brief stretch in the second half.

The win was a major validation for new coach John Groce, who led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season and has brought his trademark aggressive offensive and defensive schemes to Champaign this season. The team looks completely transformed from Bruce Weber’s past few underperforming squads.

“I need to take a deep breath,” Groce said after the game. “You see the names that are on that trophy and it really puts it into perspective. The quality of this tournament. I think it’s the premier preseason tournament.”

“The thing I was probably the most proud of was our toughness,” Groce added. “Whenever you play Butler, you have to be tough. They are just so tough mentally and physically. They never beat themselves. … We’re excited. We’re not done. I think it’s a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better."

[+] EnlargeJohn Groce
AP Photo/Eugene TannerJohn Groce is off to a 6-0 start in his first season as Illinois coach after the Illini handled Butler.
Asked to describe his style in one word, Groce responded, “Attacking.”

Stevens, for one, was impressed.

“Very rarely when you have a new coach come in, do the pieces fit to that system that well,” Stevens said. “It’s so perfect the way that John likes to play and the way they spread the floor with four shooters and the way that they can shoot the ball. Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”

The Illini got great shooting and rugged defense the entire tournament. They shot 40 percent from 3-point territory and made an impressive 20 of 21 free throws in the final. And the Bulldogs, who shot the lights out against North Carolina, struggled against UI's suffocating defense. Butler shot just 36 percent from the field for the game and was 7-of-28 from beyond the arc. Somewhere, Roy Williams is wishing that Bulldogs team had shown up Tuesday night.

Paul led all Illini scorers with 20 points and was named tournament MVP. Abrams added 17 while Richardson scored 14 and grabbed 9 rebounds.

While Illinois got another balanced effort on this night, Paul was the clear leader of the team. He hit a number of clutch jumpers, and when his shot quit falling, he began driving to the basket. After several years of being a player with pro potential, he’s finally performing at that level every night. What’s different this season?

“I think coach Groce’s offense really opens it up for us,” Paul said. “Not only that, just lots of work on the offseason, not only as a team but individually, and I think it’s starting to show.”

“Brandon Paul’s a pro,” Stevens said. “He’s a big-time pro. Not only because he shoots it, the way he shoots it, he creates distance on his drives. I think he’s as good of a pro prospect as there probably was in the tournament.”

Butler’s Rotnei Clarke, who plays the game reminiscent of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, produced a game-high 27 points on 6-for-13 shooting from 3. Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, was named to the all-tournament team and had, by far, the most memorable moments of the tournament. From his buzzer-beating 3-point heave to defeat Marquette, to his off-balance 3-point barrages against UNC and Illinois, he has given the Bulldogs a glimpse of what's to come this season.

“He’s got the green light,” Stevens said. “If he’s not feeling it, he’s got the same green light. I think there aren’t five guys that have played college basketball in the last 10 years that have put in as much time as him. So he deserves to shoot as much as he wants.”

For Butler, it’ll return in a month to a tough Atlantic 10 Conference. With Temple, Xavier, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis all in the league, the Bulldogs are going to have their hands full. But they are also showing again that they can hang with anyone.

For Illinois, it’ll return to an even-tougher Big Ten. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are all contenders for the national title, while Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are solid as well. With the strong play of the Illini in this tournament, they should be right in the mix with those last three Big Ten teams for a NCAA tournament bid.

Surprise Butler run leads to Maui final

November, 20, 2012
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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Rotnei Clarke’s improbable 3-point heave at the buzzer against Marquette on Monday launched Butler into a second-round matchup against the No. 9 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Even more improbable? Clarke and Butler dominating North Carolina for 30 minutes before hanging on for an 82-71 victory Tuesday.

With 11 minutes, 38 seconds left in the second half, the game looked like it would be a blowout. Butler led 60-31 and the Tar Heels couldn’t seem to buy a shot. But after a timeout, North Carolina came out with pressure defense and closed the gap to 62-45 in just more than two minutes, thanks to a handful of Butler turnovers and big 3-point shots by P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock.

“When you’re playing a program like North Carolina, you know they’re coming and their run’s coming next,” Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said. “We didn’t handle it great, but we handled it enough that they never got inside six.”

The Tar Heels kept up the pressure and Butler kept turning the ball over. A Marcus Paige 3-pointer with 1:02 left cut the Bulldogs' lead to six.

[+] EnlargeKellen Dunham, Brad Stevens
AP Photo/Eugene TannerButler coach Brad Stevens saw freshman Kellen Dunham (24) make 5 of 9 3-pointers in the upset of North Carolina.
But the Bulldogs responded with made free throws and the Tar Heels missed several tough 3s in the last minute to give the Bulldogs the win.

In the end, it was the defensive boards and transition defense that won the game for Butler.

The Bulldogs outrebounded the Tar Heels 36-27 (24-12 in the first half) and limited high-octane North Carolina to just six fast-break points.

“The two things that scare you the most about playing a Carolina team are, No. 1, transition and, No. 2, the defensive glass,” Stevens said. “We did a good job on both of those areas and on short prep. We had a very short time to prepare for them. You have to emphasize just a few things and those were the two things we emphasized.”

“It was a tough night for us,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said after the game. “They were more physical, more assertive, more aggressive. They were physically, mentally into the game so much more, and that’s my job as a coach to get this team prepared.”

Williams also bemoaned the Tar Heels' poor rebounding in the game.

“Last year, we led the nation in rebound margin. They outrebounded us by 12 in the first half. We had one offensive rebound in the whole first half. To me that’s aggressiveness.”

Butler’s sweet shooting from behind the arc also contributed to the win. Butler shot 47 percent from 3-point territory for the game (including going 7-for-9 in the second half). It was a welcome relief for a Butler team that struggled to get its two elite shooters -- Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham -- open in previous games against Xavier and Marquette.

Clarke finished the game with 17 points and was 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Dunham also scored 17 points and was 5-for-9 from 3.

“If Kellen and Rotnei are open, it has a good chance of going in,” Stevens said.

For Williams, the Tar Heels' loss came with somewhat of a silver lining.

“I like our competitiveness and I like that we didn’t quit. We are probably not as exciting as we were last night and I hope we aren’t as bad as we were when we were down 29 points.”

For the Bulldogs?

They face Illinois in the Maui Invitational championship game. While Illinois was the heavy favorite, Stevens got a wry grin on his face when asked by a local Maui reporter what he thought about the possibility of playing Chaminade in the title game.

“I love giant-killers.”

A closer look: Butler 82, UNC 71

November, 20, 2012
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No buzzer-beater was needed this time for Butler to advance in the Maui Invitational, although No. 9 North Carolina made it interesting at the end before falling 82-71.

Bulldogs senior guard Rotnei Clarke -- who made the game-winning 3-pointer against Marquette on Monday night -- scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half Tuesday, helping break the Tar Heels’ 10-game winning streak in the Invitational and pushing Butler into Wednesday’s title game. UNC cut a 29-point deficit to as little as 77-71 with 63 seconds left when freshman point guard Marcus Paige followed a three-point play with a 3-pointer. But the Bulldogs’ early dominance was too much to overcome.

Turning point: Leading 12-7 in the first half, Butler ripped off a 9-0 run -- scoring on a floater, a 3-pointer and two putbacks. That breakaway -- which saw Clarke score five points, the Bulldogs pull down two offensive rebounds, and UNC commit two turnovers while looking befuddled on offense and outplayed on defense -- was a sign of things to come.

Why Butler won: Experience. Toughness. Intensity. The team that appeared so lifeless during a 15-point loss at Xavier last week looked just the opposite Tuesday night, pouncing early and beating the Tar Heels on the boards (36-27), to loose balls and in the paint. Clarke shot his team ahead in the first half, and Kellen Duham (17 points) came on strong in the second.

Why UNC lost: Let’s count the ways. The Tar Heels pulled down only one offensive rebound in the first half (with 11:03 left, when Leslie McDonald grabbed a P.J. Hairston miss, and turned it over). They didn’t shoot a free throw until 13:13 remained in the second half (Hairston hit only one). UNC’s 18 first-half points were its lowest total since 1996. And even when it put together a 14-2 run midway through the second half (including 11 points from Hairston), UNC trailed 62-45.

Star(s) of the game: Clarke and Dunham finished with 17 points apiece for Butler.

What it means for Butler: That the little things do, indeed, count. There was some concern the Bulldogs had made only 27 percent of their 3-pointers entering this game, and their 12-for-25 (48 percent) 3-point shooting effort Tuesday was a good sign. But more important was their aggressive play in the lane, their ball control and the way they wore down the Tar Heels (both mentally and physically) early. Those focused fundamentals bode well.

What it means for UNC: That the Tar Heels have an awful lot of work to do. Yes, they picked up their intensity and rallied late, but consistency -- whether it’s temperament, shooting, rebounding -- will be key as this young team continues to try to put the pieces together. Hairston led the team with 15 points off the bench, but forwards James Michael McAdoo, Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson combined for only seven rebounds, total. It was a vastly different outcome from just one night before, when UNC pounded Mississippi State by 46 points.

What’s next: Butler will face Illinois in the championship game at Lahaina Civic Center at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday night. UNC plays Chaminade at 7:30 p.m.

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