By Ryan Lazo
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Amid reports that Butler University will officially announce their withdrawal from the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Bulldogs ran into an inspired Saint Louis team in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Butler had no answer offensively nor defensively in the decisive second half when Saint Louis continued to feed Dwayne Evans and the junior forward feasted on Butler’s front line. Couple Evans’ herculean effort with a suffocating defense and Saint Louis captured an impressive 67-56 victory at the Barclays Center.
“I thought our guys until the last ten minutes of this game really showed themselves great in this tournament,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said after his team’s loss. “I’ve said all year to the people that have listened, and some that don’t, how good they are. They are a legitimate contender for the whole thing.”
While Stevens was talking about a Saint Louis team that entered the A-10 Tournament ranked as the No. 16 team in the country, he could have also been talking about his own squad. After playing the in the Horizon League, Butler jumped to a tougher A-10 Conference with numerous big-name teams and came out successful.
With a younger team, seven underclassmen, and just two senior starters, Stevens had his work cut out for him as Butler traveled for road games in hostile environments against Saint Joseph’s, Dayton, La Salle and Saint Louis.
“This is a heck of a challenging year. This is a heck of a league,” Stevens said. “To win 13 games in this league and to win seven away from home against teams that we he had to beat, it was a remarkable run for our team.”
But that’s the thing.
Butler’s run did not end in the semifinal round of the A-10 Tournament. Their season is really just beginning as they get themselves prepared for another NCAA Tournament run.
“Obviously, this was tough, but we’re stressing putting this behind us right now and getting ready for the one that matters,” Butler guard Rotnei Clarke said of his team. “I mean, we obviously wanted to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament, but we want to make a run into this next tournament more.”
And these Bulldogs have the talent and desire to do just that.
While Saint Louis smothered Butler the entire game, holding them to just 38 percent shooting from the field, not many other teams are capable of imitating the Billikens’ effort. Even with their defensive pressure, Clarke still found a way to make an impact on the game, scoring a team-high 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting.
Clarke seemingly was ready to take over the game in the first half, nailing two consecutive 3-pointers and creating off the dribble. Unfortunately, the Billikens’ keyed on him, making quick switches on back-screens and doubling him any chance they had.
“They did a good job of trailing me. They did a good job off ball screens,” Clarke said of Saint Louis. “Dwayne Evans stayed down and he moves laterally really well. Not only that, he’s strong. He’s a really good defender.”
But isn’t it a good sign that even against an all-conference defender, Clarke was able to rack up the points?
Or how about the fact that eight different Bulldogs’ players cracked the scoresheet on the night in a balanced effort.
And how many times is Andrew Smith going to be controlled in the paint? Saint Louis packed the paint and limited his touches inside, resulting in just a 3-for-8 shooting day for 8 points on the afternoon.
But Smith said playing a team like Saint Louis will only better prepare them for the NCAA Tournament, the ultimate goal of Butler.
“Every team we’ve played in this tournament has been helpful. Even Dayton as the 12 seed, their a great team too,” Smith said. “It’s pretty much any team that you play in the A-10 is tournament quality opponent, so it’s good for us and we’re looking forward to bouncing back on Thursday.”
Because even after a tough loss, Butler is already thinking of their next challenge and a chance to avenge their early conference tournament exit. And any opponent that does not receive Butler in their region will quickly breath a sigh of relief while the ones who do will dread it.
Butler boasts the No. 4 defense in the A-10, surrendering just 63.9 points per game along with holding opponents to just 41 percent shooting from the field. Add in the fact that Butler is an astonishing plus 7.3 in rebounding margin, No. 1 in the A-10, and the Bulldogs will be a tough out.
“We focus on the defensive end and any team that does that, they have a good chance at winning,” Smith said. “When you don’t score 90 points and don’t play defense, you’re going to be in trouble, but when you hold teams to 60, you have a better chance even with an off night on the offensive end.”
And give Stevens a full four days to prepare for an opponent and he will find a weakness in their game.
“We’ve got to go out there and execute,” Butler forward Roosevelt Jones said. “Most times we do, but sometimes we don’t. Coach Stevens always has us prepared well for every single game.”
With a coach who devises winning game plans, a team focuses on avenging their loss and a defense that can shut opponents down, Butler will not be a fun second-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13