It still feels strange. Butler comes to the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC) to close out the season. That much is not strange, it happened in 2010. But what still feels strange is that this time it is Valpo who has the #1 seed all wrapped up (in fact they have sole possession of the regular season title wrapped up), while Butler is the team trying to maximize their seeding in the conference tourney.
The reigning National Runner-Up (for the second year in a row, no less) is trying desperately to secure the #2 seed and the other double bye. Yes, it's a bit of a down year for the reigning Horizon League champs and the gold standard of the conference, but there's something very unfamiliar about the HL configuration going into tonight's ESPNU telecast. Conference commentators have discussed whether Valpo will play to win tonight or rest the injury-prone as a preventative measure, as if there were no motivation for Valpo to go all-out to beat Butler.
The game that was played rendered that speculation useless. I myself said beforehand that Valpo really needed to do whatever it could to deny Butler the double-bye so they would have to play two extra games. They were just about as hot down the stretch as Detroit, if not more so, and the school plays in March with a cold-blooded mentality that is not swayed by huge opposition crowds. Just ask Milwaukee fans from last year, when they took down the Panthers at US Cellular Arena. Furthermore, Valpo has been struggling ever since that Cleveland State game when they waltzed into the Wolstein Center and trounced the Vikings 59-41. Banged up from that game, they proceed to lose their first-ever Horizon League regular season game to Youngstown State by 18 points. They returned home and had to fight from behind (at one point from a double-digit deficit) to outlast the ninth-place UIC Flames. Then they traveled to Loyola Marymount for the Bracketbuster game, leaving game-changing big man Kevin Van Wijk at home to continue rehabbing his knee, and failed to make a statement for Selection Sunday, losing in a game that was only close for a short time in the second half. After returning home, they needed overtime to defeat the 10th place Loyola Ramblers, clinching the 1 seed, but still looking like they were running on fumes.
I saw tonight's game as a moment of truth, a gut-check. How they played tonight would say something about their chances to defend home court and make it to the NCAA tournament. John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus analyzed offensive efficiency for each of the HL teams and concluded -- reasonably -- that Valpo might be the least scary #1 seed the rest of the HL could have conceived of, and that they were ripe for a take down. Tonight's game would be a prelude to Valpo answering that challenge.
The place was jam-packed, as it always is with Butler in the house. For one thing, Butler fans travel well, especially to Valpo. They even bring their cheerleaders and their mascot (though not the live one). The Valpo student section, spotty at best for the UIC and Loyola games, was filled to the brim and raring to go. Jim Barbar and David Kaplan were in the house for ESPNU, and senior walk-ons Nick Shelton and Nathan Stegelmann were feted both before and after the game. Yes, every single member of Valpo's regular rotation will be back next year. For that matter, Butler only loses Ron Nored and Garrett Butcher, so both teams are looking forward to even brighter days next season. But this is about here and now. Butler desperately wants the 2 seed, Valpo desperately wants to deny them the 2 seed. In other words: a hot rivalry, SOP for Valpo-Butler.
For some reason, Butler started cold from the field and missed a ton of layups and put-backs. Valpo wasn't exactly scorching hot, but they were better and jumped out to a 16-2 lead. From that point on, I expected the home team to win and watched for Valpo to put a definitive signature on this season and a tinge of doubt in the rest of the HL hopefuls. Let's see if we can keep the Bulldogs down. I didn't even think about the fact that we were primed to sweep Butler for the first time in HL play, something that was unthinkable a couple of years ago. I know that there is reason to believe this will be a momentary glitch, a short window for someone else to take advantage of an off year for the perennial powerhouse. But I also expect Valpo and the rest of the HL to maximize their efforts to raise their level of play to that of Butler's. What we all want is somehow to turn the HL into a multi-bid league, and not simply by someone upsetting a Top-25 Butler team in the championship game. There is no reason why Valpo, for example, can't use this narrow window to accelerate it's growth to keep up with Butler even when they regroup and reload next year. I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but there's no reason to give up on the idea.
So, it was important to me to see Valpo keep the hammer down on this team that has frustrated power-conference teams the previous two Marches. For the coaches, it was important to see the team clean up some of the issues that were on display in the last three conference games. For Kevin Van Wijk, it was a chance to serve notice on the rest of the conference that he is back and ready to drive opposing post players crazy again. When Butler pulled out it's patented high double-team (with Andrew Smith terrorizing the point guard alongside Nored), Valpo handled it fairly well. Tonight, the double-team that has been a significant weapon against power-conference teams in March was spotty at best, often leading to wide open layups by Van Wijk. Loyola played what looked like a killer zone on Tuesday that seemed to give Valpo fits. Butler brought out the zone tonight, and Valpo immediately made short work of it by draining a couple of 3s. Butler did go back to it at times, but it was certainly not a significant part of their defensive effort. When Butler did clamp down on defense, somehow Erik Buggs or Ryan Broekhoff found a lane to the basket for a buzzer-beating layup to beat the shot clock. There were a few spots where Valpo got a little ragged, and they did not shoot any better overall from behind the arc than Butler did. But between Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall, Erik Fromm, and anybody else Brad Stevens tried, all they got from trying to guard Kevin Van Wijk in the post was a sour disposition (and at one point, a technical foul on the Butler bench). There was just no stopping him. He's not graceful by any means. But he's physical -- a sign that Valpo is beginning to hold its own among the heavyweights in this conference.
But Butler is still Butler. I don't care that "Gordon Hayward ain't walkin' through that door." I don't care that Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are no longer burning the opposition with their stellar play. The Butler Way is bigger than any one player, and it's going to take a lot more attrition than this to render the Bulldogs yesterday's news. Ron Nored, who helped propel Butler into the Elite Eight two years ago with an improbable 3 against Syracuse, drained two tonight late in the second half. Chase Stigall for a short spurt suddenly turned into Zach Hahn. For those of you aren't aware, Zach Hahn was inconsistent from behind the arc the last couple of years of his Butler career -- except when playing Valpo. Against us, throw eight hands in his face from 30 feet out, it doesn't matter. That ball is going through the hoop, nothing but net, smooth as silk. Chase Stigall drained a couple of contested 3s from downtown, the second of which cut the largely sturdy Valpo lead down to six measly points with about two minutes to go. "Here they come," I wrote in my notes. I actually saw something like this coming just before the under-eight media timeout, when Butler scored four straight points to cut a 14-point lead down to 10. Valpo had Van Wijk and Broekhoff on the bench at the time. Bryce Drew likes to pull guys who need rest a little before the next media timeout so as to reduce their absence from the game while still giving them decent rest. I toyed with the idea that he might decide to rest them the rest of the way, as if to put an exclamation point on this statement game, but that's why Drew is the coach and I'm just a fan. Both returned to the action shortly after the media timeout. Still, I wrote in my notes, "Butler's still in this game, waiting for Valpo to crumble. Defining moment?"
You could say that. In response to Nored and Stigall and a full court press, Valpo calmly marched to the free-throw line and sank most of their free throws as if accepting the mantle of top dog from its previous recipient. Renewed intensity on defense led to some steals and more fouls, and before I knew it there were 15 seconds left and Brad Stevens was emptying his bench. Not to be outdone, Bryce Drew brought in his senior walk-ons, one of whom was added to the roster this season during an early stretch when Valpo was extremely short-handed. Nick Shelton, the four-year walk-on stood out at the top of the key, held the ball like he was presiding over a coronation as Butler conceded the contest and stopped guarding. As the seconds counted down to zero, with Valpo ahead 71-59, Shelton turned to the student section and made a gesture which looked like, "Ready to storm the court, guys?" Honestly, though, I don't know if that's what it was. In any event, event staff alertly roped off the student section to prevent it, as it would have made the post-game senior night festivities difficult. But it also put an exclamation point on what was a statement game by Valpo. The champs ended the season emphatically. The game itself was the court-storming; there was no need to engage in what has become a ritual of questionable merit these days, especially for a first-place team. The students got their chance last year to storm the court against Butler anyway, and made the most of it.
Tonight the unmistakeable message to the rest of the Horizon League was: Bring It On. As I finish this, chalk has held in the first round of the HL tournament, with #3 (Detroit), #4 (Milwaukee), #5 (Butler), and #6 (Youngstown State) all advancing to the second round (and #2 -- Cleveland State -- already slotted into the semifinal round along with Valpo). Two of those teams (#4 and #6) have beaten Valpo this year, and one of those (#4) did it on this very floor. No upsets to make Valpo's life a little easier, though Ryan Broekhoff would tell you there is no easy out in the HL this year. No, the best of the rest are coming to Valpo with larceny on their hearts, and Valpo says, "Bring It On. There is still much work to be done, and we're not going to wilt under the pressure."
at VALPARAISO 71, BUTLER 59 02/24/2012
BUTLER 18-13 (11-7) -- R. Nored 3-7 3-4 11; R. Jones 3-7 1-1 7; C. Hopkins 3-11 2-2 9; K. Marshall 6-9 5-8 17; A. Smith 5-13 2-5 12; C. Stigall 1-5 0-0 3; E. Fromm 0-1 0-0 0; K. Woods 0-1 0-0 0; J. Aldridge 0-1 0-2 0; A. Barlow 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-55 13-22 59. VALPARAISO 21-10 (14-4) -- R. Broekhoff 2-9 2-2 6; E. Buggs 2-2 5-8 9; W. Bogan 3-5 5-6 14; K. Van Wijk 8-9 2-5 18; M. Kenney 1-5 0-0 3; B. Boggs 2-5 7-7 11; J. Harris 1-4 2-2 5; R. Edwards 1-3 3-3 5; N. Shelton 0-0 0-0 0; N. Stegelmann 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-42 26-33 71.
Three-point goals: BUTL 4-14 (R. Nored 2-3; C. Stigall 1-4; A. Smith 0-1; E. Fromm 0-1; C. Hopkins 1-4; J. Aldridge 0-1), VALP 5-19 (W. Bogan 3-5; B. Boggs 0-1; M. Kenney 1-5; R. Broekhoff 0-4; J. Harris 1-4); Rebounds: BUTL 27 (A. Smith 5), VALP 30 (R. Broekhoff 9); Assists: BUTL 13 (R. Nored 8), VALP 11 (W. Bogan 3); Total Fouls -- BUTL 26, VALP 20; Fouled Out: BUTL-C. Hopkins; VALP-K. Van Wijk.