BUTLER: Butler University may not have been the coaches’ pick to win the Atlantic 10, but it has certainly made a splash in its first season in the league. The Bulldogs sit atop the A-10 standings, with their lone conference loss coming against La Salle on Jan. 23.
With a knack for pulling off dramatic upsets, the Bulldogs boast arguably the most glamorous resume in the nation with wins over three top 10 opponents, including No. 1 Indiana on Dec. 15 and No. 9 Gonzaga on Jan. 19.
The victory over Gonzaga was even more impressive considering the Bulldogs were without star guard Rotnei Clarke for the second game in a row. The senior guard has since returned, however, to lead a Butler attack that averages 71 points per game.
SLU: After losing back-to-back games for the first time all season, SLU bounced back with road wins against Duquesne and St. Bonaventure to remain within a game of Butler for first place in the A-10.
The Billikens are 1-1 against top-25 opponents this season, picking up a victory against No. 20 New Mexico on New Year’s Eve. The victory was their first against a ranked opponent since 2008.
Known for its stingy defense, SLU has limited opponents to a conference-best 57.8 points per game.
Thursday night’s matchup with No. 9 Butler will mark the first time SLU has faced a top-10 opponent at Chaifetz Arena.
BUTLER: The Bulldogs’ offense runs through Clarke. In addition to his on the court contributions, the 2011 transfer has emerged as one of the team’s vocal leaders, an especially important role following the departure of Ronald Nored, who was instrumental in the team’s back-to-back Final Four appearances.
Joining Clarke in the backcourt is freshman Kellen Dunham. Ranked as the 79th best recruit in his class by ESPN, the 6-foot-6 guard has already recieved comparisons to former Butler great Gordon Hayward.
While Clarke has the ability to create shots for himself, the majority of Dunham’s jump shots come off screens and set plays.
Alex Barlow and Chase Stigall also eat up minutes for the Bulldogs. Neither is a major offensive threat, but Barlow, who hit the shot to upset No. 1 Indiana, contributes as a scorer.
SLU: The defensive prowess of SLU’s guards is a known quantity, but the offensive side of their game remains a bit of a mystery.
Senior Kwamain Mitchell is still working his way back from a foot injury that sidelined him for 11 games, while Mike McCall Jr. has cooled off considerably over the last four games. Jordair Jett, known almost exclusively for his defensive skill set, has been the team’s most consistent shooter—albeit on just six shots per game.
While SLU’s three guards have not consistently put up the scoring numbers fans had hoped for, they have remained effective as playmakers, setting up their teammates for open looks.
ANALYSIS: While Clarke and Dunham appear to be trending upwards offensively for Butler, McCall and Mitchell have leveled out. Neither player has had much consistency over the last four games, but SLU will rely heavily on them to put up some points as the team works to slow down Butler’s two-headed backcourt attack.
BUTLER: Senior Andrew Smith, along with junior Khyle Marshall and sophomore Roosevelt Jones, provide a three-pronged scoring attack for head coach Brad Stevens.
Jones’ ball-handling ability was on full display against Gonzaga when he picked off an errant inbound pass with 3.4 seconds left, dribbled from midcourt to the lane and hit a floater at the buzzer to top No. 9 Gonzaga.
Despite being slightly undersized, Marshall is more of a bruiser with a knack for putting up a lot of shots and picking up points in the paint. Smith, a 6-foot-11 center, also plays a physical brand of basketball, but his comes into play on the defensive end of the floor where he works to seal off the lane and crash the boards.
SLU: The Billikens have a set of forwards capable of producing at all times of the game.
Senior Cody Ellis has emerged as more of a dual-threat this season, battling for points and boards in the paint, while maintaining his ability to knock down shots from behind the arc. Though he has struggled to maintain consistency this season, Rob Loe has also worked to become a more balanced player for SLU.
After hitting a bit of a rough patch earlier this month, Dwayne Evans appears to be back on track, taking what the defense gives him and capitalizing on open looks.
Cory Remkun provides a reliable defensive presence inside for the Billikens, while John Manning, Jake Barnett and Grandy Glaze provide some added relief off the bench.
Analysis: For what Butler brings to the table with its ball-handling ability in the frontcourt, SLU offsets it with a balanced rotation of forwards who not only can defend at a high level but are also capable of scoring in a variety of ways.
Prediction: It’ll come down to the wire, but the homecourt Blizzard will boost the Billikens to a much needed win. Expect a big game from McCall and Evans. Bills win, 67-63.