Butler is getting back to full strength, and it shows all over the court.
Rontei Clarke is pulling defenders outside, Andrew Smith is exploiting them inside and Roosevelt Jones is opening things up for his teammates.
Clarke scored 16 points, Khyle Marshall had 14 and Smith just missed a double-double as No. 15 Butler beat Duquesne 68-49 Tuesday night.
“I thought our guys were ready, I thought our guys played hard and I thought our guys played well,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Our guys really locked in defensively and I thought we played at a much better pace.”
Butler (22-5, 9-3 Atlantic 10) needed a game like this after dealing with so many close calls — and so many injuries — over the past month.
Clarke went down in a frightening collision with the basket support at Dayton on Jan. 12. The Bulldogs rallied without their leading scorer, beating the Flyers and winning two of the next three games Clarke missed. He’s been scoring nearly 20 points per game since returning and against Duquesne, he managed to score eight second-half points despite taking only two shots over the final 20 minutes.
On Feb. 6 at St. Bonaventure, Jones, who beat Gonzaga with a late steal and a buzzer-beating floater, went down with a shoulder injury. He’s been wearing a brace ever since and had posted three straight double-figure games heading into Tuesday. He didn’t hit that number against the Dukes, but he still finished with good numbers: Six points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Last week, the Bulldogs lost their only home game of the season with Smith on the bench with an abdominal injury. On Tuesday, he was back to his old self, scoring eight points, grabbing 10 rebounds and delivering assists on Butler’s first two baskets.
And now that Butler has everybody reasonably healthy heading into the season’s final stretch, the defense has becoming almost impenetrable, too.
“That’s one of the best defensive teams I think I’ve seen in a while,” Dukes coach Jim Ferry said. “They force you outside, they contest shots and you don’t sniff an offensive rebound.”
For the Bulldogs, it wasn’t a perfect night by any stretch.
Without their usually crisp passing early, Butler’s shooters struggled.
But when they warmed up, Duquesne (8-18, 1-11) never had a chance.
Butler has now won five of its last six, improved to 13-1 at home and managed to keep pace with Virginia Commonwealth and St. Louis, the two teams ahead of it in the regular-season race. The victory margin matched the Bulldogs’ second-largest of the season, behind only the 32-point win it had over crosstown rival IUPUI.
“I think collectively, we’re guarding better now,” Marshall said when asked what’s improved. “We held another great 3-point shooting team to 49 points, so that’s great.”
Duquesne got few looks over the final 30 minutes.
Derrick Colter was the only player to reach double figures, scoring 11 points. Jerry Jones, who finished with nine points and made four shots, and Kadeem Pantophlet and Sean Johnson, who each had seven points and three baskets, were the only other Dukes players with more than two baskets. They finished the night shooting just 37.3 percent from the field and were 5 of 21 on 3-pointers.
No Duquesne player had more than five rebounds or three assists, either.
So, predictably, the Dukes wound up losing for the 15th time in 17 games and with their third-lowest point total of the season.
“It’s two teams at very different level,” Ferry said. “We have to learn from this so we can get better the next couple of years.”
At first, it didn’t look like it would be this easy.
But the Bulldogs turned a 15-12 lead into a 20-12 advantage when Clarke hit a 3-pointer and followed that with a 15-foot floater. Pendleton Heights graduate Kellen Dunham scored the next eight for Butler, six coming on a pair of 3-pointers, and the lead increased to 28-17. Alex Barlow and Smith followed that barrage with two more 3s in the final 98 seconds of the first half, sending Butler to the locker room with a 36-22 lead.
That was all Butler needed to turn this game into a rout.
Marshall opened the second half by scoring nine points in Butler’s 13-7 run, which pushed the lead to 49-29, and Duquesne never got closer than 15 the rest of the way.
“Everybody’s healthy, everybody’s playing and that’s good,” said Steven, whose 161st career win tied North Carolina State’s Everett Case for the second-most victories by a coach in his first six seasons. “I think we did a pretty good job thru the injuries and what I prefer to call the curveballs. ... I’m proud of what this team has accomplished up to this point, but by no means are we satisfied.”
Butler is getting back to full strength, and it shows all over the court.
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