By Gary Graves
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. —
Butler expects its next NCAA tournament opponent to be tougher than its last.
The sixth-seeded Bulldogs have video to remind them of the task ahead.
Saturday’s third-round East Regional game against No. 3 seed Marquette at Rupp Arena is a rematch of November’s Maui Invitational showdown, which Butler won 72-71 on Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Both teams have gotten better, but neither would be surprised if this is another tight contest with a berth in the round of 16 at stake.
The Bulldogs (27-8) are coming off Thursday’s 68-56 victory over Bucknell, where they rallied from a six-point deficit in the final 10 minutes. Falling behind is something Butler must avoid against Marquette (24-8), which rallied for a stunning 59-58 victory against Davidson behind guard Vander Blue.
“It’s definitely going to be a dog fight,” Butler forward Kameron Woods said Friday. “Last game, we shot one in from deep. We expect that that’s going to be on their minds and they are going to come out as hungry and as ready to compete as we are. It’s the third round of the NCAA tournament; you just have to be ready for a dog fight.”
Butler is happy to have come out ahead in its last battle with Marquette.
Clarke hit the game-winner in that back-and-forth game. He drove downcourt and launched an off-balance, one-handed runner from behind the arc that went in. It was just the third game of the season but it sparked a mob celebration for the Bulldogs, who eventually finished second to Illinois in that tournament.
Butler players stress that they’ve grown since that victory, and as evidence they point to their return to the NCAA tournament after last year’s absence following consecutive championship-game appearances. Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall are the only holdovers from Butler’s loss to Connecticut two years ago, but Clarke is among five Bulldogs with NCAA tournament experience.
Having been there, they’ve been trying to show their hunger for another NCAA berth all season.
“We definitely matured a lot in certain areas, just little things that go out through games,” said Clarke, who scored 20 points that night. “One thing we’ve done better that we didn’t do well in that game was we got riled early. ... Going into these last couple of games, we’ve turned the ball over less and I think that’s going to be important going into tomorrow’s game.”
Butler’s main goal is preventing Marquette from mounting the kind of run that Bucknell used to make Thursday’s opener interesting for a while. The Bulldogs were outscored 19-2 and saw their 11-point, second-half lead turn into a 37-31 deficit with 10 minutes left.
They outscored Bucknell 37-19 from there, making 18 of 20 free throws over the final 4:43. Good as that was, Butler needs to be better after shooting 36 percent including 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.
At this point of the season, Butler coach Brad Stevens feels every game is a test.
“Our guys were ready to play,” Stevens said. “I don’t think it was a wake-up call to us. I just think it was, here’s what we have to do to win and in a 40-minute basketball game, it’s hard to be really good in relation to the other team for the amount of time that you need to be successful.”
Marquette experienced similar issues sustaining its intensity against Davidson. But like the Bulldogs, the Golden Eagles got it together at the right time to escape and advance.
Trailing 56-51 with 41 seconds remaining, Blue and Jamil Wilson hit 3-pointers to draw within 58-57 30 seconds later. After De’Mon Brooks’ costly turnover gave Marquette another chance with 5.5 seconds left, Blue then drove for the winning layup and sealed the outcome by picking off the inbounds pass at midcourt.
While the win speaks of the Golden Eagles’ resilience, they’re out to set the tone against Butler by sticking with their plan of getting the ball inside.
“I don’t think we beat Davidson because of what we did” Thursday, coach Buzz Williams said. “It’s the daily accountability and what you do every day during the season, the preseason and the offseason. Sometimes it shows on the biggest stage and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Marquette players know that feeling very well, having seen both sides of close finishes. Though the Golden Eagles believe it’s too soon to suggest a developing rivalry with Butler — which will join Marquette in the Big East next season along with Xavier and Creighton — they haven’t forgotten how they felt after Clarke’s shot went through the net four months ago.
The Golden Eagles say just like Butler, they have come a long way since then and want to show the Bulldogs how much better they are.
“That shot was amazing,” Marquette guard Junior Cadougan said of Clarke’s heave. “Derrick Wilson defended it well and he just shot it up and it went in. It’s motivation, period, to move on in the tournament. It’s another big game; every game is a big game in the NCAA tournament.”