Tue Jan 25 06:10pm EST
Watching Butler's once-promising season buckle under the weight of a flurry of unexpected losses is reminiscent of a previous feel-good college basketball story that also turned sour.
Fresh off a memorable NCAA tournament run in 2008 that fell just a few buckets shy of a Final Four berth, Stephen Curry's final Davidson team began the following season as America's mid-major darlings and a popular pick to play deep into March. Instead, the Wildcats didn't even make the NCAA tournament, personnel losses from the previous season taking just enough of a toll to relegate them to the NIT.
There's still time for Butler to avoid the same fate and give us the sequel we all want to see, but the Bulldogs' margin for error for at-large consideration is dwindling with each loss. Their 86-80 overtime loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Sunday was their third defeat in nine Horizon League games this season, equalling their total from the previous two seasons combined.
Defeating Florida State and Washington State to win last month's Diamondhead Classic elevates Butler's profile somewhat, but the Bulldogs don't have any other marquee nonconference victories. Thus, they likely can't afford to lose more than one game at most in their final nine if they don't want to depend on winning the Horizon League tournament to make it back to March Madness.
Whereas Davidson faded the year after its Elite Eight run because the graduation of Curry's supporting cast forced him to carry too much of the scoring burden, the cause of Butler's struggles this season are more difficult to pinpoint.
Some of it has been defensive erosion caused by the early departure of Gordon Hayward and the graduation of Willie Veasley, two versatile defenders who guarded multiple positions and neutralized stronger or more athletic players. Butler's inability to replace those two has contributed to the Bulldogs going from an elite defensive team last season to a flawed one this year that has surrendered over 55 percent shooting in two of their three league losses.
Butler misses Hayward's ability to create offense as well, but Shelvin Mack's inefficiency and Zach Hahn's lack of progress have both been issues. Mack is shooting under 40 percent from the field this season, while Hahn's 29.4 percent shooting and 30.8 percent 3-point shooting are both huge downgrades from last year.
The goal for Butler the remainder of the season should be winning the Horizon League regular-season title so it can host the conference tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Win that conference tournament, and all of this will be moot. Lose, and Selection Sunday may be a nerve-wracking day at Butler depending on how the next six weeks turn out.