This evening’s late tip-off for the Butler Bulldogs will give insight as to how the team has grown since the beginning of the regular season. Over the course of the first eight games, the Bulldogs have shown flashes of great basketball IQ and, unfortunately, more than frequent looks of stagnant ball movement, and looks of confusion. In their most recent outing against the St. Louis Billikens, Butler looked like a different team. Their passes were crisp, there was an intensity that had yet to be seen for a full forty minute game. They had some help though. The Billikens were without four of their players which drastically changes the identity of a team. Last Saturday’s result has to help build confidence for the Bulldogs though, which faces a tough Utah team tonight.
Last year, the Bulldogs visited Utah in late November and came away with a win over the Utes, 68-59. There is a new identity to both teams after they’ve seen players transition away from both programs. So why is this game so important? When you have the opportunity to play against an opponent from a power conference, it has rippling effects. Although Utah is unranked at the moment, they have multiple opportunities to play great teams in their conference. If they are able to win games against those strong teams (hopefully Oregon and Arizona step up, but definitely include Arizona State), there is a tangential effect that will help build Butler’s resume.
Utah comes to Hinkle having earned a 6-1 record to this point in the season. Their lone loss was a 27 point drubbing to UNLV. We can expect the Utes to play as deep as 9 players, with 6 players averaging between 8 to 14.9 points per game. Utah possesses a staunch perimeter defense, allowing opponents less than 25% of makes on 3’s taken. However, the Utes are only averaging just over 6 steals a game, a number that implies Butler may be able to move the ball around. Expect Utah to run a mostly man defense this evening. Utah and Butler resemble each other in their play this year in a number of ways.
Both teams struggle to shoot consistently from behind the three point line. I think this game comes down to rebounds and second chance points. With both teams shooting poorly beyond the three point line, clearing out and boxing out will be a large influence in the final score.
Where does Butler find an advantage elsewhere though? Look for the Bulldogs to attempt to continue their success sharing the ball. With Utah’s low rate of creating turnovers (about 10% of the time when they are on defense), Butler will need to play selflessly to create space for easy baskets. Because Utah plays great defense around the arc, there should be cutting lanes that develop later in the shot clock. Patience will be a factor for Butler as they run their offense.
With the preseason conversation focused on the pace of how the Bulldogs intended to play, we’ve only seem brief moments of an uptempo team. According the kenpom.com, Butler ranks 279th out of 351 Division I teams averaging 68 possessions per game. That implies the Bulldogs hold onto the ball much longer than most teams, which is true. They average a shot between 17-18 seconds into the 30 second shot-clock countdown. From the games I’ve watched this season, Butler has looked lost or stagnant on offense. Usually, if the pass isn’t available to the big down on the block or in the lane when they initially start their offense, the big will come to set a screen for the ball handler. The big rolls to the basket and the ball handler ends up dribbling on the wing for 3-5 seconds while everyone else is standing, watching on the wings. Eventually, after a few passes, and little net movement of the ball, someone ends up with the responsibility of needing to make a play, usually Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin, or Aaron Thompson. In the last game, Butler shared the ball well, earning 15 assists on 26 made shots. If they want to see continued success, they will need to be decisive with their passes and confident in their shot selection.
Things to watch:
Utah’s height- David Collette is an effective 6-10 senior that will play about 20-25 minutes today. He’s a transfer from Utah State that has played well early this season. Butler will have to play strong against him and force him into awkward shots or passing to have a chance to win. Jayce Johnson is a 7-0 sophomore that plays in place when Collette is on the bench. Butler’s deficiency in playing against height is still a work-in-progress. I’m curious to see what coach LaVall Jordan draws up for match-ups. The fun thing about basketball games is that they are always changing. Fouls adjust the personnel on the floor. If someone is having a game where their shot isn’t falling, they can play a role as a ball distributor.
Possible deep threat – The only real deep threat from beyond the three-point line is 6-6 senior Gabe Bealer. On the season, he’s shot 16-28 from beyond the arc. Other players from Utah that have the ability to shoot from three are seniors Tyler Rawson and Justin Bibbins. Both men have made 11 three points apiece to this point in the season. If Paul Jorgenson shoots well tonight, he’ll help fill the loss of Sean McDermott’s shooting. Paul is capable of hitting a few consecutive three-points that can sway the game in a major way.
Win Streak- Last year, Butler ended Utah’s then 32 consecutive non-league home wins. Entering tonight’s game, Butler sits 3rd in the nation with 39 consecutive non-league home wins.
I believe this will be a close game throughout regulation. The home court advantage with the crowd will help Butler. If Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin are on, it will be tough to beat the Bulldogs. I have liked seeing Joey Brunk and Nate Fowler being utilized more frequently in games. One thing that still gets me is the lack of ability for Butler to score on plays where they are inbounding the ball. Brad Stevens and Chris Holtmann have it figured out. You always need to have a play that can get you two points off of an inbound.
Winner tonight: Butler