If not for a loss in last year’s Horizon League title game, perhaps Butler would have gone into the NCAA tournament with more confidence.
The 12th-ranked Bulldogs don’t intend on losing their momentum this time around, boasting a nation-leading 19-game winning streak as they host Wright State on Tuesday night.
This is the fifth straight conference title game for Butler (27-4), but it lost last year’s matchup 57-54 to Cleveland State on March 10. Nine days later, the Bulldogs were defeated 75-71 by LSU in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Butler will be in the NCAA tournament again regardless of what happens against Wright State (20-11), but it would certainly prefer to be there following a 20th straight victory and not go via the at-large route.
“It’s a little bit of unfinished business - you feel like that when you get all that way and then you don’t finish the deal,” Bulldogs forward Matt Howard said. “It’s the same thing this year. We’re focused, we want to win. We don’t feel comfortable with where we are.”
Butler, trying for a league-record sixth tournament title, advanced with a 68-59 win over Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday. That kept the Bulldogs perfect at Hinkle Fieldhouse (14-0) and against league opponents (19-0).
Sophomore guard Ronald Nored continues to give Butler clutch performances. The conference’s co-defensive player of the year had 13 points, eight rebounds and played a large role in the Bulldogs’ decisive run versus Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Howard, last year’s Horizon League player of the year, had a team-high 18 points. The junior forward had 24 points, going 14 for 15 from the line, in a 62-57 win over Wright State in a semifinals matchup March 7, 2009.
Butler forward Gordon Hayward, this season’s conference player of the year, is coming off a subpar scoring game, finishing with 10 points. He was held to seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in last year’s title game.
Coach Brad Stevens, though, doesn’t believe the Bulldogs are headed for another letdown.
“These guys have not once talked about seeding, they have not once talked about NCAA tournament,” he said. “Their locker room is right next to my office, and I have not once heard bracketology or any of that stuff from them. These guys stay pretty focused on the task at hand.”
Butler won both regular-season meetings with Wright State this season and leads the series 22-15.
Wright State, however, appeared sharp in beating Detroit 69-50 on Saturday in the semifinals. The Raiders are in the title game for the first time since 2007, when they beat then-No. 19 Butler 60-55.
The Bulldogs were hurt by poor perimeter defense in last year’s championship matchup, allowing Cleveland State to shoot 52.6 percent (10 for 19) from 3-point range. Wright State has been shooting the ball well, making 45.6 percent (26 for 57) of their attempts from beyond the arc over their last three games, including a 12-for-23 performance versus the Titans.
Raiders guard Vaughn Duggins, a second-team All-Horizon selection, went 2 for 3 from long range and finished with 12 points. He had 18 points in Wright State’s 74-62 loss to Butler on Feb. 6, the teams’ last matchup.
Duggins is averaging 14.4 points, and Todd Brown joins him in a strong backcourt, posting 13.0 points per contest.