Virtually healthy and coming off one of its best defensive performances of the season, Butler appears ready to make a push for its first Atlantic 10 regular-season title.
The 15th-ranked Bulldogs can clear a big hurdle by assuming sole possession of first place - perhaps at least temporarily - with a win over surging conference leader Saint Louis on Friday night.
Butler (22-5, 9-3) has endured injuries to its three leading scorers in its first A-10 season but trails the Billikens (20-5, 9-2) by only one-half game. While a win Friday would push the Bulldogs ahead of St. Louis, No. 24 VCU has a chance to improve to 10-3 on Saturday.
Leading scorer Rotnei Clarke missed three games last month after severely spraining his neck at Dayton, and center Andrew Smith sat out the team's only home loss - to Charlotte on Feb. 13 - with an abdominal injury.
Roosevelt Jones has played the past four games with an ailing shoulder. While wearing a brace, he had three double-digit scoring performances before finishing with six points in Tuesday's 68-49 home win over last-place Duquesne.
"I think we did a pretty good job through the injuries and what I prefer to call the curveballs," coach Brad Stevens said. "I'm proud of what this team has accomplished up to this point, but by no means are we satisfied."
Butler heads into Friday's pivotal showdown after giving up its fewest points in 10 games and holding an opponent under 40.0 percent shooting for the fourth time in five contests.
"I think collectively, we're guarding better now," forward Khyle Marshall said.
The Bulldogs, though, could use a better defensive effort against the Billikens, who shot 50.0 percent in a 75-58 home victory over Butler on Jan. 31. Saint Louis' Jordair Jett matched his career high with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and leading scorer Dwayne Evans had 15 while making six of eight shots.
The Billikens also scored 26 points off 23 turnovers, Butler's most in one game in 10 years.
"We pretty much got punked. End of story," Clarke said. "There's not really much to say about it. We got outclassed and we got punked."
Clarke had 17 points and Smith scored 12, but the other starters combined for nine and nobody from the bench scored more than five.
Butler hasn't been the only team to struggle offensively against St. Louis.
The Billikens are allowing a conference-low 57.9 points per game and their defensive prowess was once again on display in Tuesday's 76-62 win over VCU.
To take over first place in the A-10, Saint Louis held the Rams to one point over 10 1/2 minutes in the first half. Jett scored a team-best 16, all in the second half, while helping his team cruise to its eighth straight victory.
"Our staple for our entire team is our defense and that's what we pride ourselves on," Evans said.
With another victory over Butler, Saint Louis can match its nine-game win streak from Dec. 2-Jan. 10, which was also the program's longest since a 14-0 start in 1993-94.
The Billikens are 3-1 against ranked teams this season - their most victories over ranked foes since 1993-94 - but they've lost 16 straight road games versus Top 25 opponents since a 75-69 overtime victory against No. 23 DePaul on Jan. 22, 2000.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved