Butler knew it would be facing high expectations this season, evidenced by the highest preseason ranking in school history. Injuries may have cost Northwestern the opportunity to meet its own unprecedented hopes.
The 11th-ranked Bulldogs take to the road Wednesday to play the Wildcats, who will try to overcome the loss of their best player to a season-ending injury.
Butler (1-0) is the overwhelming favorite to win the Horizon League and make a fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament, returning nearly its entire team from a 26-win campaign in 2008-09. The Bulldogs have the added incentive of the Final Four being in nearby Indianapolis and they put together a challenging non-conference schedule that includes three Big Ten opponents, as well as Georgetown, Xavier and a potential game against UCLA in the 76 Classic.
Those expectations may have contributed to some nerves, however, in Butler’s season opener as it pulled away late for a 73-62 victory over Davidson on Saturday. Gordon Hayward scored 17 points, including nine of his team’s final 17, as the Bulldogs closed the game with a 17-4 run to overcome a sluggish first half.
“It’s a lot of fun, but I’m sure there are some anxious moments and that’s OK,” coach Brad Stevens said. “This game is not going to define who you are, win or lose, but it gives you a lot to work on.”
Matt Howard, the preseason Horizon League player of the year, contributed 10 points as did junior Shawn Vanzant, who made 3 of 5 from 3-point range in his first start.
While Butler has designs on crashing the Final Four, Northwestern (1-0) has hopes of erasing the stigma of being the only school from a major conference never to reach the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats defeated Northern Illinois 77-55 on Friday, but the win came at a costly price with senior swingman Jeff Ryan suffering a torn ACL that ended his season.
Coach Bill Carmody had to absorb another crushing blow Monday when 2008-09 leading scorer and second-team all-Big Ten selection Kevin Coble opted for season-ending surgery to repair a fractured left foot. Coble, who suffered the injury in practice Nov. 10, averaged 15.5 points and 4.8 rebounds as a junior in helping the Wildcats reach the NIT.
“We’re obviously disappointed that Kevin won’t be able to be on the court this season,” Carmody said. “He worked very hard this offseason to get himself in great shape for his senior year and we were looking forward to him having a terrific season. It was obvious after meeting with numerous doctors that surgery was the necessary course of action to take in order to best prepare him for the future.”
Without Coble and Ryan, Northwestern’s depth has thinned significantly - a cause for concern in a deep Big Ten - and the offensive burden now falls to guards Jeremy Nash and Michael Thompson and center Luka Mirkovic. The trio combined for 47 points versus Northern Illinois, sinking 21 of 28 free throws.
Butler, which has won 21 straight November games dating back to 2005, rallied from a nine-point deficit to defeat Northwestern 57-53 at home last season.