After battling a lake effect blizzard and a city lacking parking capacity, we got to the box office only to discover a sold out Wolstein Center. People actually loitered outside in the driving snow wondering if it was a big joke, almost waiting for the ticket clerk to say, "Just kidding guys." After all, the crowd of 8,500 was the first sellout crowd in the history of Cleveland State's Wolstein Center, and this was a team that just two days earlier saw fewer than 4,500 seats filled. There was no joking to be had, it was "Black Out Butler" day, and the place was jammed. We finally got admitted into the game- standing room only style late in the first half.
Those of you that watched on ESPN2 probably saw the same thing I did. If Butler can make it back to the NCAA Tournament, they will not go quietly. The Bulldogs 15-9 record appeared awfully deceiving especially down the stretch, as they seemed unfazed by the hostile crowd and shot the Vikings off of their home floor. From the 10:00 minute mark on in the second half, Butler shot 9-13 from the field, including three dagger treys from by Matt Howard, who is looking more and more like the NBA prospect he has been touted as.
Just like in last year's tournament, Butler played with incredible discipline, running offense for 25 seconds nearly every possession leading to good looks at the end of the shot clock. They played solid defense, keeping Norris Cole from easy drives to the hole. When he did slash into the paint, center Andrew Smith was their to alter shots. Smith averaged just 5 minutes per game last season, but at 6'11'' he was surprisingly mobile and active on both ends of the court. He scored 13 points yesterday and his play will be crucial if Butler has hopes of another tournament run.
Sitting at 7-5 in the Horizon League, the Bulldogs must win the conference tournament as an at-large bid is certainly out of the picture. Much more was expected of this team with so many players returning, but the loss of Gordon Heyward proved difficult to overcome. Injuries to point guard Ronald Nored, who was such a steady hand during last year's run, has made consistency difficult for Butler. It has also forced Coach Brad Stevens to run a nine-deep rotation which may benefit them in the long run.
If Butler can find a way into the tournament, I see them as a Northern Iowa type team from last year. They don't have the superstar in Heyward to take them back to the Final Four, but their strengths are different this year. In Smith and Howard, they have two legitimate post scorers and solid defenders on the other end. In Shelvin Mack, Butler has the unquestioned leader of this bunch who can fill up a box score, or drop 25 points if needed. When Nored returns to full strength, they have an experienced floor leader and lock down on-ball defender. Their supporting cast includes Khyle Marshall, a good looking 6'7'' freshman who can hit a mid-range jumper and may be the best pure athlete on the team.
Teams in the Illinois, Syracuse, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt range...Watch out. If Butler can get in, they're playing you in the first round. After yesterday's performance against a solid Cleveland State squad, Butler showed it's heart. Now it's time to wait and see if Coach Stevens and his boys can recapture the magic.