PALO ALTO, Calif. — Here's a scary thought for future high seeds in the NCAA tournament: Butler coach Brad Stevens likes the direction his team is headed.
Yes, the Bulldogs finished their non-conference schedule a pedestrian 6-7. Yes, they suffered humbling losses to lightly regarded Evansville, Ball State and Valparaiso. But the way Butler culminated its best week of the season with a 71-66 road victory over previously surging Stanford on Thursday night has Stevens cautiously optimistic entering Horizon League play.
"What I like is that we're making strides," Stevens said. "What your record is makes no difference with where you are, and I think that's what we have to focus on. We're better than we were and we could have won a couple of those games. We've just got to keep getting better."
If the consensus a few weeks into the season was that this would be a transition season for Butler with so many young players stepping into increased roles, then the past week has been a reminder not to write off this year's Bulldogs just yet. Sandwiched around a loss at Gonzaga were victories over a Purdue team expected to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten and a Stanford team whose only prior loss came by six to top-ranked Syracuse.
An at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is a remote possibility at best for Butler because it sustained so many pre-Christmas losses, so the Bulldogs' best chance to return to the national stage this March is to win the Horizon League tournament. That seems like a realistic goal the way Butler's freshman- and sophomore-dominated roster has begun to jell defensively and show signs of life shooting the ball from the perimeter.
"Our young guys understand more about what college basketball is and how hard it is to be successful," senior Ronald Nored said. "I don't think as a unit we really understood that a month ago, but I think we're really growing into a team that takes every possession like you don't get another one. We're growing into that, but we have so much more room to grow. In another month, hopefully it's even better."
Butler's trademark is still the physical defense and patient offense that propelled its past two teams to the national title game, but what makes this year's Butler team different is its lack of a go-to scorer. Whereas Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard or Shelvin Mack had the responsibility to carry the team offensively in the past, you have a better chance of picking a winning lottery number than guessing who the Bulldogs' leading scorer will be from game to game this season.
Nine different players have led Butler in scoring in its 13 games this season, a statistic that reflects the Bulldogs depth but also their inconsistency. Four players average at least 8.8 points per game, but none more than forward Khyle Marshall's 10.3.
Outside shooting has been by far Butler's biggest weakness, but the Bulldogs finally sank some jumpers on Thursday night against Stanford. They made the typically stingy Cardinal defense pay for giving shooters too much space by sinking 10 of 22 threes, a far cry from the 28.5 percent Butler had shot from behind the arc as a team this season.
"I've watched a lot of tape of them, and they were just missing shots," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. "They were open in a lot of games and just not hitting them. You're always concerned as a coach because they have good shooters. (Erik) Fromm's a good shooter, (Chase) Stigall's a good shooter, (Chrishawn) Hopkins is a good shooter and none of these guys were really making shots. So I knew sooner or later the basket was going to open up for these kids. You just hope it's not going to be against you."
The player who made the most back-breaking shots against Stanford was actually Nored, a senior who never shot higher than 27.5 percent from three-point range in any of his previous three seasons at Butler. Nored scored a game-high 18 points on Friday, sinking back-to-back threes early in the second half to help the Bulldogs rally from a seven-point deficit and burying one as the shot clock expired with 3:26 to play to give Butler a commanding 62-55 lead.
"It was nice to make some shots because this summer and this fall I put in so much work and still haven't shot it the way I want to shoot it," Nored said. "But coach believes in me and says, 'if you're open, shoot the ball.' Once your coach has that kind of trust in you, you just shoot it and do what you've prepared to do."
If Nored's desperation three was Butler's biggest basket of the game, it wasn't the only time the Bulldogs benefited from good fortune. Andrew Smith also extended a four-point lead to six on a lay-in with 51 seconds left as the shot clock expired when he collected the ball after it ricocheted hard off the backboard on an errant shot from near mid-court.
"We've been working on that off-the-backboard pass and that last millisecond three, and finally it's going down for us," Stevens joked.
The way Butler prepares, it wouldn't be that surprising.