Before they took the court for their New Year's Day beating, the Valparaiso Crusaders said they were "excited" about their Horizon League road game against sizzling-hot Butler.
"Every conference game is important," coach Homer Drew told reporters. "But Butler's important because they're the best right now, until someone can dethrone them. They're the pinnacle."
And not just in the Horizon League.
For the second straight year, Brad Stevens' squad has established itself as one of the top teams in the country. Saturday's 76-59 victory over Valparaiso at Hinkle Fieldhouse was the sixth straight for the Bulldogs, who in the last two weeks have also defeated Washington State, Florida State, Utah and Stanford.
The recent string of success couldn't be more rewarding for a team that lost three of four games in late November and early December, although it should be noted that two of the setbacks were against defending national champion Duke and always-pesky Xavier.
No one is ready to compare this year's Butler squad to the one that fell to Duke in the NCAA title game last spring. That team featured first-round NBA draft pick Gordon Hayward, who is now with the Utah Jazz. Still, it's important to note that the 2009-10 Bulldogs had the same record on Jan. 2 as this year's team: 10-4.
Considering the increased strength of the Horizon League, Butler will have a tough time duplicating the spotless conference record it posted last spring, when it won 25 straight games before falling to the Blue Devils in the season's final game.
If we've learned anything, though, it's that Stevens is one of the country's top coaches. With him on the bench – and returning starters Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored on the court – anything seems possible.
Especially during another season filled with parity.
(Last week's rank in parenthesis.)
1. San Diego State (15-0, 0-0) – With 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds, Kawhi Leonard is close to averaging a double-double. (1)
2. BYU (13-1, 0-0) – Jimmer Fredette had a season-high 34 points against Buffalo on Thursday. (2)
3. Butler (10-4, 2-0) – Friday's game against Cleveland State will be tough. (NR)
4. Central Florida (13-0, 0-0) – Three of the Knights' last four wins have come by single digits. (4)
5. Gonzaga (9-5, 0-0) – Elias Harris is averaging 16.3 points over his last three games. (5)
7. UNLV (12-2, 0-0) – The Rebels need to get tougher inside. (6)
8. St. Mary's (12-2, 0-0) – The Gaels have won six straight. (8)
9. Memphis (10-2, 0-0) – The Tigers may have the most-talented team in Conference USA – but maybe not the best. (7)
Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis – Less than three weeks after having surgery on his right knee, Witherspoon scored a season-high 28 points and had a career-best 14 rebounds in the Tigers' 88-70 victory over Lipscomb on Thursday.
Horizon League – Butler has won four straight conference titles. Claiming a fifth certainly won't be easy. Cleveland State is off to a 14-1 start while Valparaiso is 10-4. Detroit is as good as it's been in years thanks to the addition of standout freshman Ray McCallum Jr. The Titans, though, lost at home Saturday to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is also a talented team.
Central Florida's recruiting – The Knights' success on the court is paying off on the recruiting trail. Michael Chandler, a 6-foot-10 standout from Indianapolis, pledged to Donnie Jones' program on Saturday morning during an official visit to the school. Chandler – the 47th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com – previously considered Xavier and Louisville and also visited West Virginia and Providence.
Old Dominion – The Monarchs were absolutely annihilated in an 81-58 loss at Missouri on Thursday. Old Dominion (9-3) certainly wasn't expected to beat the No. 10 Tigers. But getting beat that handily can't be good for the Monarchs' confidence entering the crux of conference play.
Xavier's depth – The Musketeers announced Wednesday that key reserve Jay Canty could miss up to six weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury leaves Xavier with just nine scholarship players – only seven of whom play significant minutes.
Isiah Thomas – Florida International's decision to hire the NBA legend as its coach isn't paying off for the Golden Panthers. One season after finishing 7-25, Thomas' squad is just 5-7.
THREE TO WATCH
Marshall at Central Florida, Wednesday – Donnie Jones will be facing his former team.
Memphis at Tennessee, Wednesday – The Tigers are catching their in-state rivals at just the right time.
BYU at UNLV, Wednesday – A victory over the Cougars would give UNLV tons of momentum in what promises to be an entertaining race in the Mountain West.