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Graham Watson

Horizon League, Butler highlight start of conference tourneys

The Dagger

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As the Horizon League championship gets underway Tuesday, there's a little more pressure on the conference than there has been in past years thanks to Butler's miraculous run to the NCAA Tournament final a year ago.

That improbable final matchup against Duke, which was a missed Hail Mary 3-pointer away from being one of the most historic upsets in Tournament history, set the Horizon League apart from other mid-majors and makes it the centerpiece as college basketball's most exciting time begins.

And once again, Butler is at its core, but not necessarily as the darling, but rather as a team that could miss the tournament after it's one shining moment a year ago.

Unlike two of the past four seasons, the Bulldogs might not have the credentials to get into the NCAA Tournament without winning its conference tournament title and might be sweating it out with the rest of the bubble teams come Selection Sunday.

It's not like Butler hasn't done its best to erase its poor 4-4 start to the season, which might be the determining factor when the final bracket is set. Winners of their last seven games, the Bulldogs finished the season 21-9 and locked in a three-way tie -- the first in conference history -- with Milwaukee and Cleveland State. With the exception of a two-point win against Green Bay, Butler has handled its competition relatively easily.

But Butler isn't exactly getting help from teams from the Big Six conferences. Some teams who are shoo-ins for the NCAA Tournament have had key losses to expand the proverbial bubble, making the notion of the Horizon League getting two teams into the tournament a lot of hot air.

Butler has been in this position before. In 2009 and 2007, the Bulldogs finished runner-up in their league tournament, but won the regular season championship and earned an at-large bid because of its success for the bulk of the season. This year's numbers are the most appealing of all the Horizon League teams. Butler is 21-9 with an RPI of 47. And while it has no wins over the RPI Top 25, it is 3-3 against the RPI Top 50 and 5-4 against the Top 100.

Even though Butler has the history and the credentials -- it's been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2007 -- it's Milwaukee that's carrying the torch for the Horizon League this week. The Panthers clinched the No. 1 seed after an overtime win over Youngstown State last Saturday, marking the team's ninth consecutive win. But both teams earned a double bye, which automatically put both of them into the semifinals in opposing brackets.

Rest assured that both teams would love to meet each other with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line. Butler lost to Milwaukee in both meetings, including an 86-80 overtime loss back on Jan. 23, which ultimately cost the Bulldogs the top seed in the conference tournament.

But Butler's ready to make a potential third game count. According to Milwaukee fan blog PantherU, in the waining seconds of Butler's 63-56 win against Loyola on Saturday, Bulldogs guard Shelvin Mack went to the scorers table and asked the final score of the Milwaukee game to see if his team had any chance at the league top tournament seed.

But the obsession with Milwaukee did not end there. After the game, during the senior day festivities, assistant coach Matt Graves, filling in for Brad Stevens, who left the game during the first half with an irritated eye (don't worry, he's OK), took the microphone and threw down the challenge hammer to the Bulldogs' rival.

"We're gunning for Milwaukee," Graves said to the cheering crowd while talking about the tournament. "We're coming there to getcha."

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