Butler getting defensive with its play at just the right time

St. John's forward Tariq Owens (11) drives on Butler guard Sean McDermott (22) in the first half of a recent game in Indianapolis. (By The Associated Press)
Butler University men's basketball coach LaVall Jordan gestures in the second half of a recent game against tSt. John's in Indianapolis. (By The Associated Press)
St. John's forward Marvin Clark II (13) shoots over Butler center Nate Fowler (51) and forward Kelan Martin (30) in the first half of a recent game in Indianapolis. (By The Associated Press)

It’s February and for a college basketball team “on the bubble” of having a memorable season (making the NCAA Tournament) or not (playing in some event ending in “IT”), the details need adhered to and everyone knows that, from the head coach to the managers.

“At some point,” first-year Butler men’s basketball coach LaVall Jordan said recently, “it has to become player owned.”

Jordan was speaking on the topic of his team’s defensive performance of late, which in Wednesday’s victory at Marquette, was as impressive (mostly) as any the Bulldogs had put forth all season.

Butler limited the second-best 3-point shooting team in the Big East Conference to 20 percent accuracy in the first half, as the Bulldogs (16-7, 6-4 Big East) built a 15-point halftime lead on the Golden Eagles (13-9, 4-6).

That effort continued into the second half, as Butler stretched its lead to as many as 30 points, before human nature intervened and the Bulldogs let their guard (literally and figuratively) down a bit.

But even with 10:00 of “let’s just end this and go home” seeping through the minds of the 13,000-plus people in the arena (including the Bulldog players), Butler still only allowed Marquette to shoot 46.2 percent overall and 27.8 percent from long range, as the Bulldogs eventually prevailed 92-72.

“We looked like a jayvee team,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said in a postgame interview. “Even when it was 18-18, I didn’t think that we were playing particularly well and Butler had a lot to do with that.”

Not very many teams have played “particularly well” against Butler of late, and its ever-improving defense is a reason why.

Over a recent 17-day stretch, Butler allowed six opponents to connect on at least 45 percent of their shots, and five times that number was 49.1 or higher. It was no coincidence that the Bulldogs lost four of those games.

“(Defense) has to be the players’ focus,” Jordan said. “It has to be what they care about.”

In the three games since, though, the Bulldogs held DePaul to 35 percent shooting and St. John’s to a meager 29.1 percent.

Marquette finished the game with a respectable percentage, but the more accurate number was the 34.8 percent shooting that the Golden Eagles struggled to muster, as it fell behind by double digits into the second half.

The Bulldogs have now won four of their past five games.

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Butler is the eighth-worst defensive team in the league, which goes a long way in explaining why it currently is in the bottom half of the Big East standings. However, both placements are trending upward with its improved defensive play.

“We’re getting back to talking,” Bulldog senior center Tyler Wideman said recently. “Talking on defense and holding each other accountable. Not so much from the coaches, but more on us.”

Both Wideman and Jordan credited the fact that the Bulldog scout team has played a huge role in the team’s improvement.

During practices, young Butler players such as recent transfer Jordan Tucker, Christian David, Jerald Gillens-Butler, and Joey Brunk go full-bore at the starters, which have prepared them for gamedays.

“Our scout team is really good,” Wideman said. “They give us really good looks in practice.”

As of today, Butler is in pretty good shape in terms of earning an NCAA Tournament bid, but the race is far, far from over.

The Bulldogs RPI is 25th and they have impressive wins over Ohio State, Utah, and Villanova. However, of Butler’s remaining eight games, four are against teams that have already beaten the Bulldogs this season, another had Butler down by 20 in the first half before blowing that lead (Georgetown), while another is ranked No. 1 in the nation (Villanova) and Butler has to play the Wildcats on the road.

“They have been challenged (by the scout team),” Jordan said of recent practices. “There have been moments in practice when the players stopped it, not the coaches. They held it up, got together and said ‘This isn’t good enough.’

“Those are the good teams that become great teams, especially on that side of the ball.”

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.