After holding down one of the top offenses in the nation, Butler may have to rely on another strong defensive effort when it returns to Atlantic 10 play.
The ninth-ranked Bulldogs have ruled out leading scorer Rotnei Clarke again as they try to extend their winning streak to 14 games Wednesday night at La Salle, one of the conference's highest-scoring teams.Butler (16-2, 3-0) had hoped to get Clarke back against the Explorers (12-5, 2-2), but the team announced Monday that the senior guard would miss his third straight game with a sprained neck.Clarke, who is averaging 16.3 points, was hurt when he crashed head-first into a padded basket support at Dayton on Jan. 12."Without Clarke, they're a good team," La Salle coach John Giannini said. "With him, they're certainly better -- maybe a great team. But maybe they're a great team even without him out there."While they've averaged just 63.0 points -- 9.0 below their season average -- in the two games since Clarke went down, the Bulldogs have stepped up defensively to tie the fourth-longest winning streak in school history at 13.Butler held visiting Richmond to its fewest points this season in a 62-47 win last Wednesday, then limited then-No. 8 Gonzaga to its second-lowest total in a 64-63 victory Saturday. Gonzaga ranks among the top 10 nationally with 79.4 points per game.Sophomore Roosevelt Jones stole an inbounds pass and hit a buzzer-beating floater to give Butler its school-record third victory of the season against a top-10 opponent. The Bulldogs moved into the top 10 on Monday for the first time since Feb. 18, 2008."The way they play the game, how hard they play the game, they just make you believe," coach Brad Stevens said of his players.Jones has averaged 15.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in his last three games, while freshman Kellen Dunham -- starting in place of Clarke -- added 14 against Gonzaga while hitting 4 of 8 from 3-point range.Butler is hoping to control the boards again, having outrebounded 10 of its last 11 opponents. The Bulldogs lead the A-10 in rebounding margin (plus-8.1) while La Salle ranks 14th at minus-2.2.The Explorers, however, should provide another test for the Butler defense as the league's third-ranked scoring offense at 72.8 points per game. They've averaged 80.6 points during a seven-game home winning streak.La Salle lost 70-63 at Xavier on Saturday, but Giannini has set a lofty goal this week as the Explorers face Butler and then visit No. 19 VCU."Not many teams have the potential to beat two ranked teams in the same week," Giannini said. "If you do that, you'll elevate the program pretty quickly. It's a great challenge, but a great opportunity too."Senior guard Ramon Galloway leads the Explorers in scoring (17.0 ppg) and ranks in the top 25 nationally in 3-point field goals made per game (2.9). He's also among the Division I leaders with 2.5 steals per contest.The Explorers are second in the A-10 in that category, averaging 8.5 steals."Their pressure is very good and their guards are very good," Stevens said. "I think it's a team capable of being an at-large NCAA (tournament) team."Butler is 6-2 all-time in this series, although these programs haven't met since 1999. The Bulldogs last visited La Salle in 1994 when both schools were in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, the former name of the Horizon League.