Few mid-major programs have been as successful in recent years as Butler. Now it's time to see if the Bulldogs can remain an elite program as part of the Big East.
They'll get a good measuring stick right off the bat, with 11th-ranked Villanova looking to hand them a rude introduction to conference play Tuesday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse following a deflating loss to a former Big East rival.After seven conference titles and two national title game appearances in 11 seasons with the Horizon League, Butler spent one year in the Atlantic 10 before moving into the Big East this season along with Xavier. Creighton came from the Missouri Valley to join the league, giving it 10 basketball members after having 15 last season.Butler has the lowest enrollment of any Big East program and was picked in the preseason to finish ninth after former coach Brad Stevens bolted for the Boston Celtics. However, Brandon Miller has stepped in to lead Butler (10-2) to a tie with Creighton for the second-best record in the conference behind Villanova (11-1).The Bulldogs' only losses came in a three-day span at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, falling by two points to then-No. 5 Oklahoma State and in overtime to a 9-2 LSU team. They've since reeled off five straight victories, including one over 10-3 Purdue."I like where we are right now," Miller said. "We've definitely improved from the start of the season. I liked our non-conference in terms of the styles we faced. We've seen a variety of styles like we'll see in the Big East."The matchups with high-scoring foes like Oklahoma State, LSU and Purdue provided good preparation for the Wildcats, who entered the weekend leading the league with 82.5 points per game. However, they fell behind Creighton among the Big East scoring leaders due to a 78-62 road loss to second-ranked Syracuse on Saturday.Villanova led 25-7 before giving up 20 straight points and would never lead again in its first game following a week off."I sensed that when we came back from break we were just a little bit off. We were in such a groove," coach Jay Wright said."... We had the lead and then we got sloppy."A bright spot for Wright was top scorer James Bell getting back on track, matching a career high with 25 points and making six 3-pointers. The senior averages 16.2 points but totaled 11 on 4-of-16 shooting in the previous two games.Juniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard are the other Wildcats averaging in double figures, but they accounted for just eight points Saturday and shot 2 for 11."We had our struggles," Bell said. "We can't depend on the ball going in the net to play defense. ... I feel like we lost a little bit of what we do."The only other time Villanova failed to surpass 70 points was a win over then-No. 2 Kansas on Nov. 29. Plus, the Wildcats allowed a season-worst 46.7 percent from the field to Syracuse.Butler doesn't seem to present the same kind of challenge defensively, averaging 69.9 points against its last eight Division I opponents. However, the Bulldogs boast two dangerous offensive players with Kellen Dunham averaging 18.1 points and Khyle Marshall at 17.0 per game with 6.7 rebounds.Teammate Kameron Woods is averaging a league-best 9.8 boards."We're all really excited," Woods said of the conference opener. "We've come together."The Bulldogs, who lost their only meeting with Villanova on Nov. 30, 1996, are 6-0 at Hinkle Fieldhouse and 232-34 since the start of 1995-96.