First of all, Happy New Year. I hope you woke up this morning with only the slightest of hangovers, eager to jump out of bed and start tackling a couple of those resolutions that you drunkenly scribbled on that filthy napkin at 3 AM. That napkin was gross. It had ketchup on it. Next time, just use the notes section in your phone or something. Okay, now that that’s out of the way: did you see that game between Butler and St. John’s last night? No? Oh man, have I got a story for you…
The Butler Bulldogs came into their conference opener against the St. John’s Red Storm as the toast of the Big East. They had it rolling at 12-1 (despite a recent slump by star guard Kamar Baldwin) and walked into Carnesecca Arena as very deserving owners of the #11 ranking in the most recent AP Poll. In my opinion they were clearly the most impressive Big East team through the non-conference portion of the schedule and in the first half against St. John’s, they backed that up.
Things were tight until St. John’s Rasheem Dunn hit a free throw to tie things up at 14 with just under 8 minutes left in the half. Then Butler locked in and made those last 8 minutes a living nightmare for the Johnnies. They proceeded to close the half on a 23-2 run and did everything aside from literally placing a chair at half court, bending each St. John’s player over their knee and spanking them as the Carnesecca crowd silently watched. It was a clinic. Great Butler defense on top of poor St. John’s shooting left the Red Storm in an offensive desert.
Kamar Baldwin even had his flow back (after an early injury scare when he landed funny on a driving layup.) To make matters worse for the poor Johnnies, their two best players didn’t show up. Mustapha Heron was still out with an ankle injury while LJ Figueroa was physically on the court but just didn’t show up (early foul trouble limited him to 13 scoreless minutes). I half expected Coach Mike Anderson to walk out of the St. John’s locker room alone for the 2nd half and throw a towel onto the court before walking away.
That did not happen. A couple of minutes into the new half, Jordan Tucker sank a 3 to extend the Butler lead to 42-19 and then something changed. St. John’s seized control of the tempo and things began turning. Their defense, which has been their calling card this season, was relentless. They began forcing Butler into turnovers every other possession with full-court pressure, constant traps and active hands that led to a parade of points scored in transition.
It looked like St. John’s was suddenly playing with 6 defenders. It got wild. Seriously. The Red Storm went on a 29-4 run to take a 48-46 lead with 7 minutes left. A Dunn layup extended the lead to 58-53 with 3 minutes left and it really did feel over for Butler. Carnesecca was rocking, the Bulldogs body language was terrible and St. John’s had so much momentum that it could have donated a good amount to charity and still been fine.
And then Butler locked in again. They outscored St. John’s 7-0 over those last 3 minutes with the game-winner coming on a Christian David 3-pointer with 43 seconds left that was his only basket of the night. And so, Butler nation let out a collective sigh of relief as the Bulldogs escaped with a valuable Big East road win.
Kamar Baldwin led the way for Butler with 19 points while Nick Rutherford had 15 point and 6 steals for the Johnnies.
So What Does This Mean?
Butler fans…don’t freak out. Your team is not as bad as they looked in the 2nd half.
St. John’s fans…don’t freak out. Your team is not as bad as they looked in the 1st half.
I honestly don’t think my opinion has changed about either of these programs. They’ve been two of the more surprising teams so far and they continue to be. They each had one terrible half and one fantastic half. And as awful as things got, Butler was able to close it out when they had to. That’s what teams ranked #11 should do. St. John’s is well-coached and that defensive pressure is stifling. They’ll win their share of games but the ceiling feels limited unless Figueroa (and Heron when playing) can find a way to be more consistent as the stars of this team.
Butler hosts Creighton on Saturday, January 4th at 12pm (EST)
St. John’s visits Xavier on Sunday at 4:30pm (EST)