Butler’s season no breeze, but it’s not all bad

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Saturday’s Duke-Butler game is a championship game rematch in name only. These are not the teams that clashed last April.

Duke’s thriving with a new point guard, a faster style and less rugged inside play. The Bulldogs are still adjusting to life without Gordon Hayward, not to mention a hobbled Ronald Nored.

Don’t expect a thriller. But that’s life for a program like Butler.

It received all sorts of acclaim during its Final Four run, but that was just a few months ago. When a player of Hayward’s caliber leaves for the NBA as a sophomore, it throws everything off.

“If you’ve got 13 scholarships still and somebody’s deciding whether or not if they’re leaving, you definitely are in a pinch if they go,” coach Brad Stevens told Andy Glockner. “There’s no question, no ifs, ands and buts about it, but that’s why again you have to think about that in advance a little bit and you have to be doing a good job developing guys in your system.”

But it’s not all bad. Before that title game, Saturday’s showdown wouldn’t have rated national attention. Any notice would’ve been because of Duke, not the matchup. And Duke’s not the only big-time program playing the Bulldogs. Later this month, Stanford plays at Butler.

Eat your heart out, mid-major schools.

“It used to be when you told people you played for Butler, and they weren’t from Indiana, you had to explain where that was,” senior Matt Howard told the AP. “Now, they all say, ‘You have a chance to win the national championship here.’ A lot of what happened last season has really helped our program.”

The Bulldogs (4-2) are coming off a much-needed 65-63 win against Loyola-Chicago, which also happened to be their Horizon League opener. If an at-large NCAA tournament berth isn’t in the works come March, Butler knows its conference play can still get it back to the Big Dance.

Or one marquee win. Like on Saturday. It’s a longshot, but Duke’s players are wary. They know what Butler’s capable of.

“It could definitely turn their season around since they’ve been up and down,” Nolan Smith told Andy Katz. “They know how to win and coach. [Stevens] is one of the up-and-coming coaches out there in the college game, and his players are ready to play. I’m sure they’ve had this game circled to come at us extra hard knowing that this game could put them right back where they want to be — to jump-start their season.”

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