Butler visits Duke for Round 2
Enough looking ahead. No more circling the big games. If the Bulldogs didn't play the Butler way -- defending on each possession and taking care of the basketball -- what did it matter how many national television appearances they were set to make this season?
"We had to get back to the basics," Mack said. "We had to stop looking at the big games. We had to focus on the time period."
That included locking in on a Horizon League road game Wednesday against previously undefeated Loyola (Ill.). The Bulldogs, playing their second straight game without their top defender in guard Nored (concussion symptoms), survived with a two-point road win.
"It was a great win for us," Mack said. "All of these preconference games get you ready for the conference. It was a great win. We're not 0-1 in the conference in the middle of December. We're 1-0. And it was on the road."
Slow starts are not unfamiliar territory for Butler. Long before the Bulldogs came within one shot of beating Duke and capturing the national title last April in Indianapolis, the Bulldogs struggled to find their footing. They lost two of three games at the 2009 76 Classic in November. They weren't able to finish against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden and lost at UAB by 10 points in December. Don't think for a second that their 20 straight wins heading into the NCAA tournament were a walk in the park, either. There were plenty of tight games along the way in the Horizon League.
Even the road to the Final Four included late-possession wins over Murray State, Syracuse and Michigan State.
"Our margin for error was really small during the NCAA tournament," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "We were moving possession-by-possession for five straight games. And against a team like Duke, our margin of error is small again."
The Bulldogs face another marquee game, this time a rematch with the Blue Devils in one of Cameron Indoor Stadium's northern satellite offices at the Meadowlands (the other is at Madison Square Garden) Saturday afternoon (ESPN/ESPN3, 3:15 p.m. ET).
The Bulldogs opened the season at Louisville's new KFC Yum! Center and were essentially run out of the building in a 15-point loss. A 13-point win at Siena, in which Nored suffered a concussion during a collision, didn't mask the issues that were evident in a three-point overtime loss to Evansville.
"We weren't in sync. We had double-digit leads and let it slip away," said Butler senior forward Matt Howard of the Evansville loss. "But they were all improvable things that could be fixed. But they were inexcusable because it was effort that was lacking. The few execution things we did better Wednesday night.
"The coaches prepare us and then you're basically ignoring it or not applying it. Wednesday was a huge step and hopefully we'll carry it to [Saturday]."
But Howard isn't going to proclaim that this Butler team can mimic last season's group.
"At this point last season, we were playing better than we are right now," Howard said. "That doesn't mean we can't improve to that level. But it shouldn't take this long. It shouldn't be this slow of a start to get there. That's on us. You could say coaching, but it's not. They are getting us ready with the same preparation. It's just not the same execution."
Howard said there is a different vibe when the team gets on a roll, something he hasn't felt yet this season. He said last season there was a sense that the Bulldogs would get the stop they needed to come up with the win.
"Hopefully we can build that this month," Howard said, adding that a number of players are acclimating to different roles this season.
Nored is questionable for the game against Duke. Stevens said Nored didn't practice Friday morning and that they'll evaluate him Saturday to see if he's ready to play. The Bulldogs would undeniably feel his absence against the Blue Devils.
"It affects us a lot, especially me," Mack said. "He's a great point guard, and he's able to free me up so I can get open shots within the system."
Stevens is impressed with Duke's start to the season. The Blue Devils are coming off a week in which they crushed Oregon in Portland and came home to outlast Michigan State behind freshman Kyrie Irving's 31 points.
"They have a dynamite offense," Stevens said. "It's up there with the best I've seen in my 11 years of coaching."
Irving's ability to get into the lane has changed how Butler is preparing for Duke this time around. And even though the stakes aren't as high, the significance of playing each other is not lost on the players.
"We just played them a couple of months ago, so we know them," Duke guard Nolan Smith said. "[Gordon] Hayward went to the NBA, but a lot of their guys are there and probably have a big chip on their shoulder and want to get us. We're getting the same hunger to go at them, as well."
Smith is aware of how important a win over the Blue Devils could be to Butler.
"It could definitely turn their season around since they've been up and down," Smith said. "They know how to win and coach. [Stevens] is one of the up-and-coming coaches out there in the college game, and his players are ready to play. I'm sure they've had this game circled to come at us extra hard knowing that this game could put them right back where they want to be -- to jump-start their season."
Smith said this season's Duke team has had a killer instinct to put teams away when it has a lead, something that didn't occur as frequently last season. Duke let teams hang around quite often last season, in part because it didn't have as many playmakers to silence a run. Duke couldn't do that against Butler in April.
"My favorite memory of that game was that Gordon's shot hit off the backboard and the front of the rim and didn't go in," Smith said. "That made us national champs."
No one on Butler's team will forget that, either, including Stevens, who has a photo of the game in his office. Someone glued the final score onto the picture; he taped it over. As much as he loved looking at the wide-angle shot of Lucas Oil Stadium, he didn't need to be reminded of the final score.
Some will mistake this game for a rematch. It's not. The two teams are different. Duke is more productive, efficient and tougher to guard. Butler is not -- at least not yet.
"We've gotten off to bad starts, against Louisville, where they had more energy, opening up the arena and they had more juice, and against Evansville we didn't have the same passion like we normally do," Mack said. "This is a great opportunity competing against Duke. Everyone wants to play Duke. We wish it was the national championship game, but it's just another game on the schedule. It's as big game for us as Loyola was. We've got to be ready and prepared."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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