The phrase “signature victory” is thrown around quite a bit in college basketball.
In NCAA Division I men’s basketball, a team generally needs at least one in a season to garner consideration for the 68-team championship tournament field.
The phrase basically refers to a win over an opponent that was either an upset or very difficult to attain. Such a win shows a team’s mettle and proves it belongs with the proverbial ‘big dogs’.
Unsurprisingly, the term has popped up quite a bit since the 2006-07 season when pundits mentioned the Butler men’s basketball team.
This season’s Bulldogs have seen the term applied to at least one of their victories so far.
As Butler coach Brad Stevens has done each season since becoming head coach, the Bulldogs were peppered with a tough non-conference schedule, one that could reward Butler with some
signature wins in exchange for strong play.
Butler did not show up against Xavier in November in what was their only true bad loss so far.
Following that game, the Bulldogs slipped past now-No. 25 Marquette, suffocated then-No. 9 North Carolina and were clipped by current No. 23 Illinois.
Some might consider the contest against the Tar Heels a signature win, but UNC has shown that it really is not a great team, at least not yet.
I think Butler would beat Marquette more convincingly given another matchup, and Illinois has been inconsistent as of late, proving those aren’t really signature victories either.
Four games and four victories after the Illinois loss, Butler had a chance for its first true signature win this season.
The game against then-No. 1 Indiana on Dec. 15 screamed signature win if Butler could get it done.
Butler was ranked No. 19 in the nation after the heartstopping overtime win. The Bulldogs were victorious in the remainder of their games heading into Atlantic 10 Conference play for the first time.
At this point, some may be asking: are these “signature victories” really that important in the grand scheme of a season?
If Butler loses to Indiana and everything else remains the same, you have a 14-3 team that still recorded strong victories against UNC, Marquette, Northwestern and three above-.500 teams in the A-10.
If the Bulldogs continue to be strong in A-10 action, finish with four, five or six losses, they’re still set up for a solid tournament seed, right?
Let’s take a look back at Stevens’ last year as a Butler assistant coach and first season as the man at the helm.
Signature victories were needed consistently by Butler’s squads in order to secure a stronger position in the NCAA championship tournament.
During the 2006-07 season, Butler defeated a 24-11 Tennessee team that made the Sweet 16 and was nationally ranked when it faced Butler, a 24-7 Notre Dame squad, a 22-11 Indiana squad and a 23-10 Gonzaga team.
The result: a No. 5 seed and a trip to the Sweet 16.
The 2007-08 season saw Butler face typically strong programs facing down seasons, including a four-game stretch against Michigan, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech and Ohio State.
The Bulldogs finished 29-3 in the regular season, better than the previous season’s 27-6 record.
The 2006-07 squad earned a No. 5 seed without winning the Horizon League tournament.
The 2007-08 team won that same tournament, won more games overall and garnered a No. 7 seed.
The message: signature wins matter.
Now let’s get back to this season’s team.
The A-10 is a solid conference overall. Seven of the 16 teams have no more than four losses against at least 12 victories. Xavier is not included in those seven but is one of four teams to start 3-0 in league play.
The other three are Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Charlotte. VCU is No. 22 in the nation right now at 14-3, and Charlotte is 15-2 against a relatively unimpressive non-conference schedule and three A-10 foes.
Butler plays VCU once in the regular season, barring a conference tournament matchup. While a victory in that contest for Butler could be considered a signature win, it is now a game the Bulldogs will be part of each year for the foreseeable future.
In-conference victories don’t tend to be signature unless it’s the last-place team toppling the first-place one.
So it would seem Butler will have to make do with the signature win(s) it has, since A-10 play is well underway.
However, there is one not so small matter remaining:
No. 13 Butler still has a non-conference opponent to face this regular season. The game will take place tomorrow at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
It’s against No. 8 Gonzaga.
If it’s even possible, the stage might be set for an even more momentous Butler signature victory this weekend.
Let’s start with the uncontrollable factors.
Gonzaga, like Butler, has been a very strong mid-major program in recent years. These Bulldogs are rolling along much like Butler’s.
In fact, both teams’ last loss was to Illinois, although the Zags fell at home and Butler on a neutral court.
Scheduling Gonzaga in the midst of conference play is a test for any team. For Butler, add on that this is its first season in the A-10, and the level of risk rises.
Also, being ranked eighth nationally is obviously a bit stronger than being ranked 13th.
Even with Gonzaga being the travelling squad, this is clearly a signature victory opportunity for Butler.
There is one more crucial detail to bring to light, however.
Butler senior guard Rotnei Clarke is not expected to play in the game with a neck injury.
He is the team’s leading point scorer and one of its best—if not the best—offensive playmaker.
He’s mobile, agile and can free up space for a 3-point shot from out of nowhere.
His effect on any Butler game cannot and should not be understated.
In the 16 games that Clarke has played in this season, he has scored more than 10 points 12 times. He led or was tied for the team lead in scoring in 10 of those games.
Butler is shooting 47.4 percent from the field in the 12 games mentioned just before.
In the four games Clarke scored less than 10 points, including the five in his injury-shortened Dayton outing, that percentage drops to 44.8.
Against Richmond Wednesday, the Bulldog churned out a motley 37.5 percent performance from the field. Butler’s stingy defense more than made up for this.
That might not work so well against Gonzaga.
Butler rebounds slightly better than Gonzaga (94th nationally versus 109th), but the Zags are a far better shooting squad than Richmond.
They are eighth in the nation in points per contest and the second best shooting team, percentage-wise.
Making matters more difficult, Gonzaga has allowed more than 70 points in a game just four times this year.
Butler can continue to work the shutdown defensive strategy that led to a victory over Richmond, but the Bulldogs will need to play far better offensively than they did Wednesday to grab win number 16.
The addition of Clarke to Saturday’s lineup would go a long way toward that.
But that is not one of the cards Butler has been dealt.
So we come back to signature victories.
Many key statistics and facts suggest Gonzaga should pull this game out.
Of course, Stevens and his Bulldogs have never really cared about what the statistics and facts suggest.
And that’s how season-changing games—signature wins—are created.
This is a chance for Butler to show it has enough pieces to stop a Top 10 team despite its sidelined leading scorer.
This is a chance for Butler to prove to the nation—and specifically the A-10—that teams should be very afraid to come to Hinkle Fieldhouse.
This is a chance for Butler to display its mettle on an ESPN telecast and to give those who make the NCAA tournament bracket a heck of a lot to think about in March.
Clarke is expected to be back for the Bulldogs next week. For now, however, Butler has an opportunity to prove it can live—and even thrive—without him.