After failing again to clinch at least a share of the Horizon League title, Butler takes a one-game hiatus from conference play. Facing a Davidson team that may be without Stephen Curry could be the kind of break the Bulldogs are looking for.
The 21st-ranked Bulldogs (22-4) visit John M. Belk Arena on Saturday afternoon after losing two straight for the first time in more than two years.
Wednesday’s 63-60 defeat at Wisconsin-Milwaukee prevented Butler from securing at least part of their third straight conference championship. The Bulldogs also failed to clinch Sunday, falling 71-67 to Loyola of Chicago.
“We got out-toughed the whole game,” guard Gordon Hayward said Wednesday. “We didn’t really deserve to win. We played hard out there, but we weren’t playing the right way.”
Hayward scored a season-low four points on 1-of-4 shooting - 0-of-2 from 3-point range - as the Bulldogs shot a season-low 18.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Fellow freshman starters Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored scored 11 and 10 points, respectively, against the Panthers. Butler coach Brad Stevens dismissed any thoughts that youth - he has three freshman and a sophomore in the starting lineup - is impacting his team’s recent performance.
“No wall,” Stevens said in response to questions about whether his younger players were wearing down under the rigors of the college season.
Sophomore Matt Howard has done all he can to help Butler, which has two Horizon games remaining, earn the conference crown. The forward had a team-high 20 points along with nine rebounds Wednesday and is averaging 23.0 points, 8.7 boards and 68.6 percent shooting in his last three games.
Another big performance from Howard on Saturday would help as the Bulldogs look to avoid their first three-game slide since Jan. 22-29, 2005. Butler hadn’t dropped two in a row since Jan. 19-21, 2006.
“The next step is just to go to Davidson,” Nored said. “The pressure’s off.”
That’s only if Curry doesn’t play. The nation’s leading scorer at 29.0 points per game, Curry missed his first collegiate game Wednesday as the Wildcats (22-5) fell to The Citadel 64-46 to open a four-game homestand.
The junior guard sprained his left ankle in Saturday’s 75-60 win at Furman and it wasn’t decided until right before game time that he would sit.
Curry is questionable for Saturday.
“They dominated us start to finish tonight,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said after the Wildcats dropped their second straight at home for the first time since Nov. 30-Dec. 8, 2004. “The dominated us in the paint, on the perimeter, end line to end line. Some of our guys are not as good without Stephen Curry, and with the lack of what he could do for us, combined with the unfamiliar roles players were thrust into, it wasn’t enough against the great effort we saw from The Citadel.”
Sophomore Brendan McKillop took Curry’s spot and posted career highs with 15 points and five rebounds in his first collegiate start.
“We’re a team of role players, and when part of that team is missing, it affects all of us,” Brendan McKillop said. “When that player is the leading scorer in the nation, that loss is felt exponentially.”
Davidson shot a season-worst 25.4 percent from the field with Curry sidelined. Without the star guard Saturday, the Wildcats could struggle against a Butler team that has 10 road wins - tied for most in the nation - and the fifth-best field-goal percentage defense in Division I at 37.7.
This is the first meeting between Butler and Davidson.