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Into the Bulldogs' Backyard: Michigan State-Butler Preview

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6:07 P.M. (ET), SATURDAY
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg)

HONORARY ENEMY BLOG: The Mid- Dawg-Majority

Bulldog bullets:

  • Overall record of 32-4; a perfect 18-0 in Horizon League (also won conference tournament).  Riding a 24-game winning streak.
  • How they got here: Beat #12 UTEP 77-59 (67 possessions), beat #13 Murray State 54-52 (58 possessions), beat #1 Syracuse 63-59 (63 possessions), beat #2 Kansas State 63-56 (64 possessions). 
  • Regular season quality wins: Northwestern (away), UCLA (neutral), Ohio State (home), Xavier (home), Wright State (three times), Siena (home).
  • Regular season bad losses: Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown, UAB (away; all others neutral).
  • KenPom ranking of #12: #46 on offense, #6 on defense.
  • Eight players averaging 10 or more minutes per game.
  • Head coach Brad Stevens likes the new-fangled numbers, which helps explain his shiny career record of 88-14.  (I'll try not to reveal too much, in case he's reading.)

Statistical capsule for the five Butler starters after the jump:

Player Height Weight Year Min/G Pts/G OffRtg Poss% 2pt% 3pt% FT% Oreb% Dreb% Ast/G TO/G Blk/G Stl/G
Ronald Nored 6'0" 178 So 29.4 5.4 96.0 16.5 .504 .182 .612 2.6 9.4 3.7 1.9 0.1 1.6
Shelvin Mack 6'3" 214 So 30.8 14.1 108.5 24.9 .509 .386 .736 2.3 12.8 3.1 2.1 0.1 1.3
Willie Veasley 6'3" 204 Sr 30.8 6.1 106.4 17.4 .617 .369 .647 6.2 11.4 1.0 1.8 0.3 1.1
Gordon Hayward 6'8" 200 So 33.1 15.2 113.9 24.4 .608 .295 .827 8.0 23.3 1.8 2.2 0.8 1.1
Matt Howard 6'8" 230 Jr 25.7 10.2 112.8 24.3 .504 .273 .792 9.3 16.8 0.9 1.6 0.6 0.6


That's not your run-of-the-mill mid-major Cinderella résumé.  Butler now has four wins over KenPom top-10 teams, and they've absolutely taken care of business elsewhere.  All four of their losses were away from home in games played in a previous calendar year.  Three of the losses were to NCAA Tournament teams; the other was to an NIT team.

Oversimplification: This team is Northern Iowa--a team that slows the game down, plays disciplined defense, doesn't allowed second chances, and utilizes two legitimate low-post threats on offense--on steroids.

Let's start on the less scary side of the ball--offense.  Butler really excels only at two things (although they're two pretty good things to excel at): they score efficient inside the arc and they score a lot of points from the free throw line.  The Bulldogs have made 51.8% of their 2-point attempts this year.  They're led in that department by Gordon Hayward, who's made 60.8% of his 199 two-point attempts.  For some reason, Hayward drifts away from the basket quite a bit--taking 149 shots from beyond the arc--despite carrying a much less efficient 3-point shooting percentage of 29.5% (although he did shoot 44.8% from 3-point range as a freshman).

When the Bulldogs aren't converting field goals around the basket, they're getting fouled in the process of attempting those field goals.  Matt Howard leads the way here, with a whopping free throw rate of 85.4 and a healthy free throw percentage of 79.2%.   As a team, Butler ranks 15th in the nation in free throw rate and 31st in free throw percentage.

Like our friends in Madison, the Bulldogs eschew the offensive board to prevent transition scoring opportunities for their opponents.  They're up and down in the turnover department and don't normally light things up from beyond the arc.

The success of the Bulldog offense revolves around the Mack/Hayward/Howard trio.  KenPom labels all three as "major contributors."  The other two starters are "role players."  And the guys coming off the bench have "limited roles."  Howard's struggled with foul trouble of late, though, and is averaging just 7.8 points/game in NCAA Tournament play.  That's left Hayward (16.0 points/game) and Mack (16.5 points/game) to keep the team afloat on offense during the tournament run.  Despite a 1-10 three-point shooting performance against the Syracuse 2-3 zone, Mack is still shooting 46.4% (13-28) from long distance in the tournament.  Tom Izzo's game plan will almost certainly revolve around forcing the Bulldog role players to beat MSU on offense.

It's a testament to just how good the Butler defense is that the team has advanced this far despite being held below a point per possession in each of their last three games, playing against two top-15 offenses in the process.  The Bulldog defensive style is both highly conventional and highly effective.  They force tough shots (46.0 Opp 2pt%, 31.7 Opp 3pt%) and then they clean up the misses and head down to the other end of the court.  Hayward leads the way on the defensive glass, but everyone chips in.  The Bulldogs also force a decent amount of turnovers with an extended man-to-man defense, and they don't foul all that much.

Mr. Gasaway's scouting report on the Bulldog defense:

That being said, Butler's team defense is predicated less on total Nored-like blanket coverage from five players and more on either forcing turnovers or, failing that, making role players on the opposing team take jump shots. The Bulldogs' tournament opponents have given the ball away on one in every four trips, but when those vanquished foes held onto the thing they actually fared OK, averaging 1.19 points per effective (TO-less) possession. For comparison's sake, West Virginia ranks first in this stat in Indy, allowing just 1.13 points per effective trip. (Michigan State's D is last at 1.26 but, again, MSU is currently doing its best Florida 2007 impression, outscoring opponents and not sweating nerd candy like "defense.")


Small ray of hope: The Bulldogs don't block that many shots (277th nationally in block%).  That's good news for Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green--our tenacious but somewhat underheighted post threats.  It's just a matter of getting them the ball without turning it over.

The other hope, of course, is that MSU will be able to impose its single elite-level offensive skill on the Bulldogs and score some second-chance points.  That didn't happen against Northern Iowa, but UNI was one of just two opponents to hold the Spartans below an offensive rebounding percentage of 30.0 this season.  The unstoppable force needs to overcome the immovable object for MSU to put up an efficient offensive performance.

Beyond that, it simply comes down to execution.  Korie Lucious has to handle and distribute the ball efficiently.  Durrell Summers has to keep knocking down jumpshots.  And Green and Morgan have to continue asserting themselves in the lane to create scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates.  There aren't a lot of other options left.  If one of those four guys has an off night, maybe the team's role players can scrape together enough points to compensate.  If two of the four healthy core players struggle, it's almost certainly the end of the line.

The wild card is Chris Allen.  Hopefully, with a full five days of rest, the situation with his arch will be more workable.  Allen has the potential to take some of the ball-handling burden off Lucious' back and be a second threat to knock down some 3-pointers so that Ronald Nored and the Bulldog defense can't focus too intently on Summers.

KenPom is predicting a 64-62 Butler win in 63 possessions.  The guys in Vegas think it'll be the Bulldogs by 1 or 1.5.  If anything, I'd lean a little further in the Bulldogs' direction given that the KenPom calculations don't account for Kalin Lucas' absence.  I also wonder how much longer the Lucious/Summers/Green/Morgan quartet can keep up their collective run of assertive-but-steady play.

On the other hand, there are some intangibles that may work in MSU's favor.  I don't tend to talk about (or put much weight on) intangibles, but I do think the Final Four is a whole new ballgame.  On the Spartan side, you've got a core of players that have been here before and shouldn't be intimated by the setting.  Morgan has now played in 15 career NCAA Tournament games, Allen and Summers have played in 13, and the team's sophomores (Green/Lucious/Delvon Roe) have played in 10.

Given the generally slow tempo the Bulldogs play at (64.5/possessions per game on an adjusted basis), Tom Izzo shouldn't have to rely on less experienced players for a lot of minutes.  Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman will play whatever minutes Roe's knee won't allow him to, Mike Kebler spelling Lucious for a bit in each half, and Austin Thornton will come in to dive for a few loose balls and maybe knock down a jumper or two for a few minutes.

The only flaw in this plan is if the Bulldogs' propensity to draw fouls sends any of MSU's major contributors to the bench for extended periods.  (Also, beware the flop.)  We say see more of Nix and Sherman early to absorb some fouls.  That would also allow Morgan to play mainly at the 3 spot and try to take advantage of a potential size mismatch against one of Butler's three guards.

On the other side, the Butler players being so close to home could be a double-edged sword, with the pressure of playing in the program's first-ever Final Four in front of so many hometown fans (and media members) creating a little anxiety for the relatively young Bulldog squad (three sophomores in the starting lineup).

(Plus, as noted by LVS last night, Hayward has to go do math on Friday.  Hopefully, the topic is the Möbius strip, and Hayward's mental wiring goes haywire trying to wrap his mind around the concept.)

Intangible working against us: The real Jimmy Chitwood played at Butler.  Ironically, it's our coach who was recently seen shouting, "My team is on the floor!" (well, figuratively at least).