For a team that has struggled early this season in the aftermath of its near-miraculous run to the national title game against Duke last April, Butler gave a remarkably good account of itself while losing the distant replay against the Blue Devils, 82-70, Saturday afternoon at the izod Center.
Star Gordon Hayward, whose halfcourt heave nearly went in at the buzzer in Indianapolis, has moved to the NBA, and veterans Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored have been joined by some players who were on the bench last season plus a few freshmen. After losing at Louisville and then at home against Evansville, Shawn Vanzant said the players held their own meeting to iron out roles and what was expected.
But the loss to No. 1 Duke (8-0) in a game they led five times dropped the Bulldogs to 4-3. It would only be natural for the veterans to have trouble shaking the memory of the NCAA championship loss while working new players into the mix.
But Howard said, "I don't really think that's a big factor in what's going on. We have guys who weren't even there. We've got guys in different roles. I don't think it has anything to do with a hangover. But there's things we can do better mentally, and that's going to be the focus moving forward."
Coach Brad Stevens once again had his team well-prepared. If there's a better young coach in America, you'd be hard-pressed to find him. But while he said being competitive with Duke wasn't a moral victory, Stevens saw enough from a team in transition to be encouraged.
Senior Vanzant stepped up with 14 points; 6-11 sophomore Andrew Smith was a force in the middle with 10 and five rebounds, and redshirt sophomore Chase Stigall and junior Garrett Butcher made contributions. Freshmen Khyle Marshall, Crishawn Hopkins and Erik Fromm stuck their toes in the water in limited roles.
When you think about it, Butler performed far better than it did last year when it shot only 31 percent in a Madison Square Garden loss to Georgetown. "I was pleased in some regards," Stevens admitted. "Like last year, I see a little light at the end of the tunnel, and you can embrace the little things."
Last year, the little things turned into a 25-game winning streak that nearly ended with the biggest win of all.