Butler appears bent on dominating the Horizon League for the third straight season, but if any team has a chance of dethroning the 16th-ranked Bulldogs, it could be Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The red-hot Phoenix will try to end an eight-game losing streak against the defending conference champions on Thursday at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as Butler will look to move to 17-1 for the first time in school history.
After winning a share of the conference crown in 2006-07, the Bulldogs (16-1, 7-0) cruised to regular-season and tournament titles in the Horizon League last season, finishing 30-4 overall.
Despite losing their top two scorers from that team, they’ve looked just as strong in 2008-09, matching the program’s best-ever starts—both overall and in conference play. Butler has also won its first eight home games and its last eight overall since a 54-51 loss at Ohio State on Dec. 13.
The Bulldogs survived a tough test at Illinois-Chicago on Saturday, shooting just 7-of-31 (22.6 percent) from the field in the first half and falling behind by 11. But they outscored the Flames 42-24 in the final 20 minutes en route to a 59-52 victory.
“Everybody on our team is a great shooter,” Butler guard Willie Veasley said. “So when things aren’t falling, we just have to keep shooting. It’s bound to go in sooner or later.”
Butler got huge contributions from its impressive freshman duo, as forward Gordon Hayward matched a career high with 25 points, hitting 7-of-13 from 3-point range. Guard Shelvin Mack added 18 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
The pair helped compensate while leading scorer Matt Howard (13.8 points per game) was held to a season-low six points.
While the Bulldogs will be happy to begin a three-game homestand at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where they’ve won 29 of their last 30 games in conference play, they could face a challenge from Wisconsin-Green Bay (14-5, 6-1) even though they’ve outscored the Phoenix by an average of nearly 13 points during their eight-game winning streak in the series.
“We always play Butler good but in the past we’ve had a five-minute or six-minute (stretch) where we couldn’t score and they went on a little run, so hopefully our team has gotten over that,” Green Bay forward Terry Evans insisted.
Green Bay should be more competitive since it brings the Horizon League’s best offense up against Butler’s vaunted defense. The Phoenix lead the conference in scoring (71.0 ppg) and field goal percentage (43.5 percent), while the Bulldogs rank second in the nation in scoring defense (55.8 ppg).
After cruising to a 91-53 non-league win over Houston Baptist on Monday, Green Bay has now scored at least 75 points in four straight games for the first time since the 1976-77 season.
While little-used freshman Brent Eaton scored a career-high 20 points Monday, the Phoenix’s offensive leader lately has been senior Ryan Tillema, who has averaged 16.0 points off the bench in 12 games since returning from a knee injury.
Green Bay has won four straight and eight of nine overall, and is 6-1 in the Horizon League for the first time since 2003-04.
Thursday’s game should provide a good measure of the progress of coach Tod Kowalczyk’s program, considering the Phoenix have gone more than 10 years since beating a ranked team. They’ve lost 14 straight since a 78-60 win over then-No. 22 Miami of Ohio on Dec. 5, 1998.