Is Butler back?
It’s hard to argue against that, based on what we saw from the Bulldogs on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational. A convincing win—with the last two minutes aside—over the No. 9 team in the nation certainly provides full-blown support to that sentiment.
However, that game is only a part of the bigger, yet still relatively small, framework of the season thus far.
A day prior to beating down North Carolina, Butler won on a buzzer-beater in what was essentially a coin-flip game. Going in, most would have agreed the opening-round game with Marquette was a pretty even matchup of two good-but-not-great teams.
Step back a bit further from anything that’s gone down in Maui the past two days. Remember Butler’s showing in the 24-hour Hoops Marathon?
Butler fans certainly tried to forget quickly. The Bulldogs fell hard in their first test of the season at Xavier.
The 15-point loss—and like the UNC game, this game wasn’t even that close—to a team with fairly modest expectations heading into the season couldn’t have provided a whole bunch of optimism, as Butler got set to leave for Maui.
So, which best represents this year’s Butler Bulldogs?
The answer: probably the Marquette game. Or somewhere in between the double-digit win over UNC and the corresponding loss to Xavier.
Will Butler finish better than its projected 6th place in the A-10 this year?
Another good answer might be just on the horizon (yes, pun on its former league). Butler will take on Illinois tonight in the Maui Invitational Championship. While the matchup might not wow you the way Duke and Kansas did a year ago, it should be quite competitive and meaningful for both teams.
Illinois appears poised for a much-improved season under new coach John Groce, especially after easily handling its first two games in Maui. This game, like Marquette, is a bit of a coin-flip that can show us even more about where Butler currently stands.
Beyond Maui, time will ultimately tell whether Butler exceeds or merely meets its expectations to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll. The best measuring stick will be how the Bulldogs fare over the grind of playing numerous tough A-10 games against the likes of Temple, St. Joseph’s, UMass, VCU and of course Xavier (last week’s game did not count as a conference game).
Win or lose tonight, there is plenty of reason for excitement about this year’s Butler team. However, we have a ways to go before we know just how good it can be.
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