Butler star A.J. Graves knows that although his team has navigated through its non-conference schedule unbeaten to this point, winning in the unheralded Horizon League may be its biggest challenge.
The No. 14 Bulldogs look for an eighth straight victory Saturday when they try to end the six-game winning streak of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.Butler (15-1, 4-1) has won all 11 non-conference games, with one remaining in the BracketBuster on Feb. 23. The Bulldogs' only loss was 43-42 at Wright State in league play on Dec. 8.They have won every game since, but the victories haven't come easy. The latest was a 74-65 win over Wisconsin-Green Bay on Thursday."It was a tough night," Graves said. "I think all the games are going to be tough. This is a tough conference, and everybody's gunning for you. We just had to claw and fight. I think that's the way it's going to be the rest of the season."Graves was outstanding in non-conference play, averaging 18.0 points and shooting 44 percent on 3-pointers. It's been a different story for him against league opponents -- he's averaging just 7.8 points on 26 percent shooting and is 2-for-25 on 3s.The senior guard did manage 13 points on Thursday, his highest total in a Horizon League game this season. Fortunately for Butler, while the league is familiar with Graves, it still hasn't gotten used to Bulldogs 6-foot-8, 225-pound freshman forward Matt Howard.Howard scored a team-high 22 points Thursday and leads Butler with 15.6 points in league play. He averaged only 11.6 points in non-conference action."I think it's always an emphasis to go in to Matt because that opens things up," Graves said. "He's a good presence for us in there and he's strong and gets buckets for us."Howard was able to get to the foul line Thursday, making 12 of 15 attempts. Although Butler went 3-for-19 from 3-point range, the freshman credited the shooters for his success."If I'm scoring, it's going to free them up, and I get my points because they're such great shooters," Howard said. "Teams have to respect them, and a lot of times, I get one-on-one. For most guys, if you're pretty good in the post, one-on-one is a pretty easy way to score."Saturday's game will match the two hottest teams in the league as Wisconsin-Milwaukee (9-7, 4-2) hasn't lost since Dec. 12. The Panthers handed league newcomer Valparaiso its first home loss, 71-69 on Thursday.Deion James scored 20 points and Marcus Skinner added 13 for Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which overcame a 56-49 deficit with 8:41 left. It also prevailed despite playing down the stretch without leading scorer Paige Paulsen, who fouled out with 13 points."We could have folded or we could have second-guessed," Panthers coach Rob Jeter said. "But, I told the guys at halftime that some things were going to happen and to let me act like the little baby on the sidelines and jump around and to just play."Fatigue may be a factor Saturday since the Bulldogs are playing their fourth game in eight days while the Panthers are taking the court for the fifth time in 10 days.Butler won both meetings between these teams last season and has won 13 of the last 15 matchups at Hinkle Fieldhouse.