Two of college basketball’s top non-power conference programs experienced rough patches last season so Gonzaga coach Mark Few and Butler counterpart Brad Stevens started comparing notes.
At one point, Gonzaga suffered three straight WCC losses for the first time in 14 seasons, sported a 3-3 record and was tied for fourth place. Butler, coming off Horizon League titles in Stevens’ first three seasons, was 6-5 in conference. Both recovered nicely as GU earned a share of its 11th straight WCC title while Butler won its final seven games to capture the Horizon and advanced to the NCAA championship game for the second straight year.
“We’ve shared phone calls over tough times,” Stevens said. “I think they started off poorly in their league – poor is relative. We had just got blown out by Milwaukee. We just kind of kept in touch through then.”
These two programs that have carved out national identities collide tonight at the McCarthey Athletic Center. Both are coming off big victories: Gonzaga (7-2) defeated Arizona on Saturday while Butler (5-6) knocked off Purdue on Andrew Smith’s last-second tip-in.
“I told our guys we play a team that has been a shot away from the national championship and 40 minutes away from the national championship,” Few said. “That will be another very difficult task.”
Butler has struggled offensively, shooting just 39 percent from the field, 29 percent on 3-pointers and 63.2 percent at the free-throw line. Butler limits opponents to an average of 64 points and outboards foes by 3.2 per game.
Sophomore forward Khyle Marshall (10.4 points, 5 rebounds), junior center Andrew Smith (10.1 points, 6.3 rebounds) and sophomore guard Chrishawn Hopkins (9.5 points) lead a balanced offense. Guard Ronald Nored, who made his 100th career start against Purdue, averages 4.9 assists. Junior guard Chase Stigall chips in 9.3 points per game. He’s made a team-high 25 3-pointers.
Marshall, at 57.3, is the only player on the roster shooting above 50 percent, but Few has great respect for Butler’s system.
“They just run their stuff so tight,” he said. “Their dedication to execution is unmatched right now in college basketball.”
Over the last five years, Butler has averaged 29.2 wins, GU 25.6.
“You go through the country. North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, UCLA, you go through them (and) they’ve all had years when they haven’t been as good,” Stevens said. “It’s not very long, usually. But Gonzaga hasn’t. What they’ve done is remarkable.
“And they continue to get NBA players year in, year out. They’ve got two now.”
He’s referring to center Robert Sacre and forward Elias Harris, who combine to average 28.3 points and 15.5 rebounds per game.