Of mid-major conference schools, Butler and Southern Illinois are two of this decade’s best success stories in the NCAA tournament. Given their respective rankings, it’s unlikely either the Bulldogs or Salukis will sneak up on anybody this time around.
Sixteenth-ranked Southern Illinois goes for its ninth straight win Saturday when it visits No. 13 Butler.
The Salukis (22-5) are in prime position to appear in their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament. Their best tournament run in that span came in 2002, when they upset Texas Tech and Georgia as a No. 11 seed to reach the regional semifinals.
Butler (24-3), meanwhile, has not reached the NCAA tourney in four years, but appeared three times earlier this decade. The Bulldogs also made a run to the regional semifinals in 2003, where they finally fell to Oklahoma.
This season, Butler entered the Top 25 on Nov. 27 after upsets of then-No. 22 Tennessee and Gonzaga, and has stayed in the rankings ever since. The Bulldogs have not faced a ranked opponent since defeating the Volunteers, but have already posted their most wins since the 2002-03 team finished 27-6.
Junior guard A.J. Graves averages a team-high 17.6 points and his 96.5 free-throw percentage leads all Division I players. With 9.6 turnovers per game, Butler’s offense is the only one in the nation averaging fewer than 10.
Butler fell out of first place in the Horizon League with last Saturday’s 77-65 defeat at Wright State, but recovered on Wednesday against Division II opponent Florida Gulf Coast, as Mike Green scored a career-high 24 points and Graves added 22 in a 79-65 win.
“The loss took us kind of hard, but coach (Todd Lickliter) is good at preparing us to play,” said Green, who has scored in double figures in seven straight games.
Southern Illinois, which has not faced a ranked opponent this season, holds a one-game lead over Creighton in a Missouri Valley Conference that features four teams in the top 50 of this week’s RPI ratings released by the NCAA. The Salukis are ninth.
Defense has helped carry Southern Illinois, which is limiting opponents to 55.7 points per game and has held 22 of its 27 opponents below 65 points, including six of seven during its eight-game winning streak.
The streak is the longest for the Salukis since they won 11 in a row from Dec. 3-Jan. 14 last season.
On Tuesday, Southern Illinois held Missouri State to 37.8 percent from the field, but shot a season-low 32.7 percent and needed a late run of seven unanswered points from Randal Falker and Jamaal Tatum to secure a 51-47 road victory.
“We just tried to stay poised and I wanted to make sure that they knew I had confidence in them to make plays,” said Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery. “It’s a great character trait of these seniors to never say die. We’ve had some bad losses here so it was very important to these seniors to come here and get a win.”
The Salukis are 2-14 all-time in road games against ranked opponents, with the last victory coming Dec. 19, 1975, over then-No. 16 Michigan. Ending that drought will be difficult at Butler, which is 12-0 at home this season and has won 22 straight at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The Bulldogs won the only previous meeting between these schools, 70-58 at home on Jan. 22, 1963.