A week ago, Vanderbilt suffered a setback to an emerging local mid-major.
Now the Commodores play the role of underdog in hopes of upsetting a program that continues to make its case as the nation’s top mid-major.
Shaking off a disappointing loss to Middle Tennessee State, Vanderbilt welcomes No. 18 Butler on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPNU). The Bulldogs are just two weeks removed from knocking off top-ranked Indiana.
“I think our schedule has been — as I’ve said all season long — very, very aggressive,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “We’ve played very good teams whether you talk about Oregon or Davidson or Middle or Xavier, we’ve played our share of really good, hard teams.
"And Butler might be the best of all of them.”
In three all-time meetings Butler never has lost to Vanderbilt. Of course, the two last played during the 1929-30 season.
The Bulldogs (9-2) ride a six-game winning streak, which included their 88-86 overtime win against the Hoosiers on a neutral floor in Indianapolis.
They’re led by Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, who isn’t a stranger to Commodore fans. Two years ago, the shooting guard torched the Memorial Gymnasium nets with six 3-pointers and 36 points in a win for the Razorbacks.
Clarke averages a team-high 17.7 points and shoots 45.4 percent from 3-point range. Four players average at least 10 points for the Bulldogs, who are guided by 36-year-old Brad Stevens. Butler’s sixth-year coach set the NCAA record for most wins (139) in his first five seasons and took the program to consecutive national championship games in 2010 and 2011.
“To have success the way he has done, people would be foolish not to respect that,” Stallings said. “I would think he is extraordinarily respected and should be. But the game is played by the players. It is not played by the coaches. He has good players — very good players — and they have experience. And they’re good inside and they’re good outside. They’re good defensively and they’re good on the boards. So we’ll get tested in every way.”
Vanderbilt (5-5) has absorbed various tests this non-conference season, which comes to a close on Wednesday against William & Mary. Southeastern Conference play begins on Jan. 10 against defending national champ Kentucky.
The Commodores have sputtered offensively in losses to Oregon, Davidson, Marist, Villanova and MTSU. But they’ve also held their own on defense as opponents have averaged less than 60 points a game. Stingy defense aided Vanderbilt in an overtime victory at Xavier, one of just two teams Butler has lost to this year.
Shoring up poor shooting — from the field and at the foul line — and rebounding better are top priorities for the Commodores. Both areas plagued them in a 56-52 loss to MTSU, which trailed by nine with 10 minutes left.
The letdown also snapped a three-game winning streak and stole much needed momentum Vanderbilt hoped to take into its mid-major showdown.
“Right now we’re trying to get better every day,” guard Rod Odom said. “I think we’re takings steps in the right direction. We’re playing harder and playing better defense. We had a tough loss last game, but we’re headed in the right direction. We still feel good about where we’re going.”