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Gavitt Tipoff Games Preview: Michigan State Meets Butler

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The first matchup between the two teams in 11 years provides the Spartans with a trip to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 13 Troy at Butler
Butler’s explosive scorer Chuck Harris will present the Michigan State Spartans with quite a challenge.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans will make a trip to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Wednesday — one of the great cathedrals in Indiana basketball and a place were parts of the legendary movie “Hoosiers” were shot — to face the Butler Bulldogs in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.

In case anybody is wondering, the eight-year series between the Big East and the Big Ten is played in honor of Hall Of Famer Dave Gavitt, a former coach and Big East commissioner who passed away in 2011. For Michigan State the contest presents another early season test in a daunting yet awesome environment, as Hinkle will for sure be rocking for the arrival of the Spartans. Let’s check how Butler is doing this season and what Tom Izzo’s men will face when they step on the court Wednesday night.

Game information

Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021

7 p.m. Eastern Time

Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

State of the program

Now, a lot of Michigan State fans may have flashbacks to 2010 just by reading the name “Butler,” and actually, this game is the first matchup between the two teams since they met in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament 11 years ago, in which Butler by a final score of 52-50. We shall forget about the non-call on Draymond Green for a second and rather concentrate on the present.

Butler has lost quite a bit of the magic it had back then with Brad Stevens roaming the sidelines, and has a ways to go to duplicate the success that now Ohio State coach Chris Holtman had from 2014 to 2017 (overall record of 70 wins and 31 losses, three NCAA appearances). Holtman’s successor, and current Butler head coach, LaVall Jordan (a Michigan native) led the team to the Big Dance in his first year when he was the youngest coach in the entire field in 2017, but since then has mostly struggled to live up to the rather sizable expectations in Indianapolis.

Jordan is only 72-53 in four-plus years as the head coach, and last year was just the fifth sub .500 season for Butler since 1993. In 2019-2020, though, Butler would have most likely made the NCAA field with 22 wins, but the postseason was cancelled due to the COVID-19-pandemic. Usually one of the classy program’s noted for “doing things the right way,” Butler has had some off-the-court problems with this group in the last couple of months. Senior point guard Aaron Thompson was suspended for the first three games of the year for violating team rules, as was sophomore Chuck Harris for an exhibition matchup with Tiffin University in late October. Carlos “Scooby” Johnson, a former Michigan State recruiting target, is not with the program as of now after he was arrested on rape charges in August.

Games this season

Nov. 10 vs. IUPUI, won 56-47

Nov. 13 vs. Central Arkansas, won 85-53

Nov. 14 vs Troy, won 70-59

Projected Starting Lineup

PG Aaron Thompson (Sr., 6-2, 190 lbs, 10.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 51.8% FG, 20.0% 3P*)

SG Chuck Harris (So., 6-2, 190 lbs, 15.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 46.7% FG, 38.5% 3P)

SF Jayden Taylor (Fr., 6-4, 190 lbs, 13.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 44% FG, 27.3% 3P)

PF Bryce Nze (Sr., 6-7, 235 lbs, 8.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 38.1% FG, 33.3% 3P)

C Bryce Golden (Sr., 6-9, 245 lbs, 5.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 60% FG, 40% 3P)

*= statistics from last season

Key Reserves

SG Jair Bolden (Sr., 6-3, 220 lbs)

SF Simas Lukosias (Fr., 6-6, 230)

PF Ty Groce (Sr., 6-8, 225 lbs)

PF Myles Wilmoth (So., 6-9, 220 lbs)

Roster Makeup and information

Butler is 3-0 and is currently ranked 64th overall in the KenPom ratings (Michigan State is No. 26), 71st in offense and 57th on defense. Butler has a very experienced roster, as all of its seniors from last year chose to use their waiver due to COVID-19 and return for one extra season to Indianapolis. The Bulldogs also added some more experience in graduate transfer Ty Groce from Eastern Michigan. Butler also nabbed some impressive freshmen with two of them – Jayden Taylor and Simas Lukosias – getting heavy minutes early on and giving the at times lethargic roster much needed life at the beginning of the season.

The rookies‘ contributions were that much more important as Butler dealt with quite a few losses at the beginning of the year. Versatile player Bo Hodges was a big loss for the Butler, as he is currently missing time with a knee injury. Point Guard Aaron Thompson has dealt with quite a few injuries himself in recent years and, as mentioned, was suspended for the first three games this season, yet he truly is the engine that makes the whole vehicle run for Butler. When he is done with his career there is a good possibility that he will be the program’s all time leading assist man, which further underlines his importance for Butler’s offense.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 13 Troy at Butler
The Bulldogs are a senior laden team with plenty of experience but struggled in mightily last season.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Next to Thompson is Chuck Harris, who is the Bulldogs‘ most explosive and important offensive player. He already led the team in scoring as a freshman a year ago and is continuing where he left off this season, too. He is a very active guard who moves well without the ball, attacks the basket and who can let it go successfully from deep as well. He will be a challenge for anyone guarding him. Other than him, the more prominent scorers so far have been freshman Jaden Taylor, a lanky, athletic wing with a smooth overall game, and super sub Jair Bolden, who is playing his sixth year of college basketball for his third team. Bolden has been on a tear early, with almost a 60 percent clip from deep on almost six attempts per game. As you can imagine, he’s not in the slightest shy about letting it go.

Butler’s front-court isn’t particularly big or imposing, yet the “Bryces“ play an important role in complementing the more prominent perimeter players. As proven by his three assists per game, Bryce Nze often finds himself with his back to the basket or in the high post orchestrating the offense. Nze himself hasn’t shot it particularly well this season, though. An interesting player is late add Simas Lukosias from Lithuania — a do everything guard/forward who played solid basketball for the Bulldogs in the absence of Thompson and has quite a bit of playmaking potential.

Statistically things aren’t looking all that great for Butler, even if the Bulldogs hardly faced elite competition at the beginning of the year. Continuing a trend from last year, the Bulldogs are really struggling to develop any kind of major strength or identity. Their defense — historically a building block for the program — has been ok this year, but struggled mightily last season. They don’t rebound the ball all that well, don’t turn you over and lack a true shot blocking presence. On offense, Butler makes Wisconsin look like Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams at times, as the Bulldogs run one of the most notoriously slow paces in the nation (337th team in average offensive possession length in 2020-2021). Butler will look for a good shot and then usually look a little longer to find a better one. Coach Jordan keeps things fairly simple on offense, running a lot of two-man sets with an overall methodical approach.

Conclusion

Michigan State is the clear-cut favorite in this game, yet make no mistake about it, the Spartans will still face a pretty challenging matchup. Butler is a senior-laden team playing at home with the chance to make an early season statement, which should give them a little extra motivation for the matchup. Playing at Hinkle is never easy, so the Spartans better be ready for a hard fought game.