Butler got a little taste of conference play a month ago, and probably learned it won’t be easy to win a third straight Horizon League championship.
The 25th-ranked Bulldogs are set to open the heart of their league schedule on Saturday when they visit Valparaiso.
Butler (11-1, 2-0) needed Zach Hahn’s 3-point buzzer-beater to win 50-48 at Cleveland Sate on Dec. 4 in its conference opener. Two days later, the Bulldogs had a 19-point lead trimmed to four with three minutes to play against a Youngstown State team which entered with a 1-5 record, but they pulled out a 79-71 victory over their league rival.
They spent the next four weeks facing non-conference opponents, suffering their only loss at then-No. 21 Ohio State—54-51 on Dec. 13.
The Bulldogs had little trouble in league play last season, going 16-2 to capture their second straight Horizon League regular season title. They swept the two-game season series with Valparaiso (4-9, 1-1) - the Crusaders’ first year in the Horizon League - and have won four straight over them since 2005.
Starting with Valpo, Butler will play its next 14 games against conference foes before a BracketBuster contest on Feb. 21 against Colorado State.
The Bulldogs are a young team, starting three freshmen and one sophomore after losing four starters from last season’s team that was ranked as high as eighth in the AP poll. This season’s team cracked the Top 25 for the first time on Monday after upsetting then-No. 14 Xavier on Dec. 23.
In its first game as a ranked team, Butler rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat Alabama-Birmingham 72-68 on Tuesday. It was the Bulldogs’ third straight win since losing to the Buckeyes.
Freshman Shelvin Mack spurred the rally with five 3-pointers in the first seven minutes of the second half and matched his season high with 22 points.
“That’s one of the things you notice right when you walk into the gym,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “His form is picture perfect. He can really shoot it, and he’s tough to defend because he can do so many other things well, too.”
Mack has scored in double figures in five of the last six games to raise his season average to 13.3 points, and he’s made a team-leading 25 3-pointers.
Sophomore Matt Howard, who is averaging a team-high 13.8 points, scored 19 in his second straight game on Tuesday. The 6-foot-7 Howard totaled 18 points in the two games against Valpo last season.
The Crusaders defeated North Park 78-47 on Tuesday to snap a season-high five-game losing streak.
After averaging 52.8 points on 39.4 percent shooting during its skid, Valpo’s offense had little trouble against the Division III Vikings, as it shot 53.2 percent from the floor. The Crusaders also outscored North Park 48-18 in the paint, and scored 36 points off an opponent season-high 26 turnovers.
“I really felt like we improved again, and it feels great to get back in the win column,” Valparaiso coach Homer Drew told the school’s official Web site.
“We still have room for improvement, especially with a very good Butler team coming in here on Saturday.”
Howard Little led the Crusaders with 16 points on Tuesday, while senior Urule Igbavboa added 15.
Igbavboa, who is averaging a team-high 10.9 points, combined for 19 points in the two games against Butler last season.