Butler is one away from matching the longest win streak in school history, but its focus is on beating the team that stopped it from winning a second straight Horizon League tournament.
The No. 18 Bulldogs look to win their 15th in a row Saturday and end Cleveland State’s run of 14 straight home victories in league play.
Butler (22-4, 15-0) can match the 15-game run set by the 1999-2000 team. The Bulldogs clinched the regular-season Horizon League title with a 68-57 win at Youngstown State on Thursday.
Gordon Hayward scored 22 points and had a career-high 17 rebounds for his eighth double-double as Butler shot 56.1 percent.
“Winning the league is something to be proud of,” Hayward said, “but now we want to win the league tournament and keep going.”
These teams have met in the last two Horizon League championship games. Butler won 70-55 two years ago before Cleveland State (13-12, 9-4) upset the Bulldogs 57-54 last year.
“Our focus is on our next game, Cleveland State,” Hayward said. “They knocked us out of the league tournament a year ago.”
The Bulldogs can become the first team to start 16-0 in Horizon League play since Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1995-96, but Cleveland State hasn’t lost a home game to a league opponent since falling 50-48 to Butler on Dec. 4, 2008.
While the Bulldogs have solidified their position atop the league, this game is vastly more important to Cleveland State. The Vikings are trying to hold on to second place, which would give them a double-bye into the semifinals of the league tournament along with Butler.
Last season, however, the Vikings won four games in the Horizon League tournament to capture their first NCAA berth since 1986 before upsetting Wake Forest in the first round. Cleveland State could be poised for similar success in 2009-10.
The Vikings pushed their season-high win streak to six games Thursday with an 80-71 home victory over Valparaiso. Norris Cole scored 22 points for Cleveland State, which made 26 of 28 free throws and is tied with Butler with a league-best 74.6 percentage at the foul line.
“Our plan was to attack everything tonight, we weren’t going to settle for jump shots unless they were open,” coach Gary Waters said. “I knew if we attacked we would be able to get to the line, and that was a great help for us tonight because we are a strong free throw team.”
Getting to the line frequently was something the Vikings were unable to do in their 64-55 road loss to Butler on Jan. 14, finishing with a season-low seven attempts. Willie Veasley led Butler with 16 points while Hayward took a season-low three shots and scored eight.
That’s been a pattern for Hayward, who matched his scoring average in four career games against Cleveland State. The sophomore forward was much more aggressive Thursday, making 6 of 10 shots and 8 of 9 at the line.
“He played like a player of the year candidate tonight,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve had different guys step up for us like that through the year, but there’s no question tonight Gordon put us on his back in a big way.”