New league, same Butler

PHILADELPHIA -- You could almost see the old-time members puffing out their collective chests back in October.

You want a piece of this, kid? Think your pretty Final Four rings have any sway here? This ain’t no Horizon League, buddy.

And so when the preseason Atlantic 10 polls came out, there was Butler, slated sixth -- behind Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Temple, VCU and UMass.

Feel free to chuckle at that stroke of genius now.

Yes, the Bulldogs made the jump from the Horizon League to the more challenging A-10. Yes, Butler played in the CBI a season ago while the Hawks were in the NIT.

Except this is Butler. Anyone been paying attention the past few seasons?

This league may not run through Indianapolis with the same annual detour as the Horizon, but it will certainly make it least a regular pit stop.

Butler made sure everyone knew that on Wednesday night when the would-be sixth-place finishers disposed of the favorites, 72-66 for its first A-10 victory.

It was gritty and feisty, hard-fought and, at times, nasty.

Butler’s way, if not The Butler Way.

"I’m really proud of how we stayed the course," coach Brad Stevens said. "They executed their plan to about a T, but we stayed the course. Nobody panicked."

You could say it is because Butler has been in big games, little games, big arenas, small gyms, hostile places, hallowed Hinkle and just about every other environment college basketball can create.

You could say it’s because Andrew Smith reigns as the only player in the country with two Final Four appearances on his résumé. You could say its because Rotnei Clarke cut his teeth in the SEC.

Or you could just offer the simplest and cleanest explanation: Butler is good. And always will be so long as Stevens is at the helm.

Count against them with the same confidence you’d use betting against Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State or any other perennially solid programs.

New league, unfamiliar opponents, new scouting reports and yet the Bulldogs are the lone ranked team in the Atlantic 10 right now.

Opposing schools already hate them for it, too.

St. Joe’s students welcomed Butler to the A-10 with a chorus of boos. In plenty of the nation’s households the Bulldogs may be America’s sweethearts, but in opposing gyms they are the rich new kids on the block -- instantaneously despicable.

"I didn’t really hear them booing me until I was down on the baseline by them," Clarke said. "But I think that’s what you work for. That’s why you put in all the extra hours in the gym, so you can go on the road to tough venues, make big shots and quiet the crowd."

In the end this particular game didn’t come down to The Butler Way or anything so cerebral.

The Bulldogs had better players, two of them to be exact.

It’s not often -- or maybe ever -- that Stevens finds himself caught off guard. He has built a career and a reputation on a combination of lethal analytics and preparedness that a Boy Scout would envy.

Yet there was St. Joseph's Chris Wilson draining four 3-pointers in the first five minutes and C.J. Aiken knocking down three more in the second.

That wasn’t in the script. The two combined were 10-of-66 from the arc coming into the game, so applying good logic, Stevens elected to sag off of them defensively and concentrate more on Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, St. Joe’s two leading scorers.

"You pick and choose your spots, and for about 30 minutes I chose wrong," he said.

The bailout came in the form of Clarke & Smith, a company slightly more reliable than AIG.

Clarke, whose range is from the opposite basket in, has provided the offensive spark last season’s Bulldog team sorely missed. He spent his evening ducking, dodging, running around, through and over every sort of roadblock St. Joe’s set for him. When the game ended, you half-wished he had worn a pedometer.

It all added up to 28 points, including six from behind the 3-point arc.

With Clarke stretching the floor, his partner found open space under the rim. Smith knew he couldn’t jump with Ronald Roberts or C.J. Aiken so he didn’t even try. He made sure he kept his position and created space to get off his favorite hook shot.

He did it to the tune of 24 points.

For those keeping score, that’s 52 of the Bulldogs’ 72 points for Clarke & Smith.

"C.J. Aiken was the defensive player of the year in our league, and there was nothing he could do," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "They’re wonderful players."

And really that’s the essence of what makes Butler special.

Basketball isn’t rocket science, really. Good players win, and Stevens has a knack for finding them. Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and now Smith & Clarke.

How’d you like a piece of that?