The Butler Bulldogs aren't anywhere close to being as good as the team that lost to Duke in last season's NCAA title game.
But Brad Stevens' 2010-11 squad may not be as mediocre as we thought, either.
Butler lost Saturday's rematch with the No. 1-ranked Blue Devils 82-70, but it should be noted that the Bulldogs played Duke as well as any team has all season.
Better than No. 4 Kansas State, who lost to the national favorites 82-68 nearly two weeks ago. Better than Oregon, a team Duke throttled by 27 points on its own court. And certainly as good as sixth-ranked Michigan State, which tested the Blue Devils before falling 84-79 in Durham on Wednesday.
"They have, arguably, three of – if not the three best – players in the country," Stevens said of Duke's Kyle Singler, Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith.
Stevens may not have that kind of talent but, heck, he didn't last year, either, and still managed to guide the Bulldogs to the championship game, where Butler lost 61-59. This year a more realistic goal would be another Horizon League championship and perhaps a run to the Sweet 16 – but even those didn't seem like possibilities a few weeks ago.
The Bulldogs' second game of the season turned into an 88-73 whipping at the hands of an average Louisville squad that was playing its first game in its new arena. The Cardinals probably aren't as good as they played that night – and Butler certainly isn't as bad.
Things got worse last weekend, though, when Stevens' team suffered a 71-68 overtime defeat against an Evansville team that is a traditional doormat in the Missouri Valley Conference. One of the main problems was that Butler played the game without standout Ronald Nored, who was out with a head injury.
Nored isn't much of a scorer, but his intensity on defense and his ability to limit his mistakes made him an integral part of last year's team. It's no coincidence that Butler played its best game of the season Saturday with Nored back on the floor.
Pleased as he was with his team's effort, Stevens realizes the Bulldogs are still a work in progress. Butler has yet to find a third scorer who will take some of the pressure off of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. The Bulldogs are also too careless with the basketball. They had 17 turnovers against Louisville and Evansville and 15 in Saturday's loss to Duke.
Stevens is confident his team will improve – just as it does every year. Butler played four games against ranked teams during the non-conference portion of its 2009-10 schedule. Three of them resulted in losses. The Bulldogs were 8-4 when they embarked on a 25-game win streak that ended with the loss to Duke in Indianapolis.
It'd be a stretch to predict that this year's team will accomplish a similar feat. Either way, it appears things are about to get better for the Bulldogs. A lot better.
(Last week's rank in parenthesis).
2. Memphis (7-0) – The bright lights of New York City await. (1)
3. UNLV (8-0) – Could this be Lon Kruger's best Runnin' Rebels team? (3)
4. BYU (8-0) – Jimmer Fredette is averaging 23.1 points. (4)
6. Richmond (6-2) – There's nothing itsy-bitsy about these Spiders. (6)
8. Gonzaga (4-3) – Each loss (San Diego State, Kansas State and Illinois) came against a ranked team. (7)
9. Central Florida (7-0) – The Knights are the best team in Florida – at least for now. (NR)
10. Temple (4-2) – The Owls aren't living up to expectations. (8)
Keith Wright, Harvard – A 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior, Wright is averaging 16.3 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Crimson, who fell to 5-2 following Saturday's 65-62 loss at Michigan. With a handful of NBA scouts on hand to watch Colorado's Alec Burks and Cory Higgins last week, Wright had 19 points and nine boards in an upset victory over the Buffaloes.
Kevin Anderson, Richmond – The Spiders' standout senior had 28 points in last week's upset of Purdue in Chicago. Four days later he swished five 3-pointers in a loss to surging Old Dominion. Anderson is scoring 16.8 points per game and has posted a double-figure scoring average in each of his four seasons at Richmond.
Massachusetts – Even with Saturday's 76-71 loss to Boston College, it's been a great start to the season for the Minutemen and coach Derek Kellogg. Massachusetts is 7-1, which impressive when you consider it went 12-20 last season and 12-18 the year before that. Anthony Gurley leads the team in scoring with 21 points per game.
Xavier Silas, Northern Illinois – A Colorado transfer, Silas is one of the top scorers in the nation with a 26.3 average. Even more impressive is that he's connecting on 58.8 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 51.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Silas has tallied 34 points in three of his last four games. In those contests, Silas went a combined 35-of-50 from the field (70 percent).
Virginia Commonwealth – The Rams ruined the good vibes surrounding the UCLA win by losing 60-59 to South Florida on Wednesday. Bottom line: If you beat UCLA, you should be able to beat South Florida, too.
Toledo – The Rockets are 0-8 with a 39-point loss to Illinois and a 33-point setback against Temple. Toledo wasn't very good under Stan Joplin – but it was never this bad, was it?
The Missouri Valley Conference – Four years after receiving four NCAA tournament bids, the conference appears to be struggling. Wichita State is a solid team that has yet to prove it can win on the road. But schools that have been good over the past few years – mainly Creighton, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa – aren't nearly what they used to be. This certainly isn't a bad conference. It's just not a great one anymore.
Siena – Last week's loss to Princeton was a punctuation mark on what had already been a dreadful November for the Saints, who opened the year by seeing their 38-game home-winning streak end with a loss to Vermont. It will be interesting to see if first-year coach Mitch Buonaguro can get the program back to the level it was at under Fran McCaffery, who is now the coach at Iowa.
THREE TO WATCH
Memphis vs. Kansas at MSG, Tuesday – This will be the first real test of the season for Memphis, which is hoping to upset a Kansas team that has looked vulnerable in its two games against decent opponents (Arizona and UCLA).
Gonzaga at Washington State – The Zags' brutal non-conference schedule doesn't get any easier with a trip to Pullman, where the Cougars nearly upset Kansas State on Friday.
Butler at Xavier, Thursday – The clash between the rivals is almost always one of the top non-conference games of the year.