Sunday, January 18, 2009
I probably should have mentioned this before, seeing as how Auburn-Florida and a dozen mid-major games have been available for public viewing, but ESPN Full Court has been holding their annual free preview this week. Meaning that yours truly would have been able to wallow around in college hoops like a pig in slop all week ... if not for a nasty combination of evening Real Life and Comcast Full Court technical difficulties that kept me from actually getting any use out of it until Thursday night.
But at least there was Thursday night, when I got my first look of the season at Brad Stevens's amazin' Butler Bulldogs, who lost a gigantic chunk of their production from their 2007-2008 back-to-back tourney teams and nonetheless sit at 14-1 with a single road loss to Ohio St. and half-a-dozen victories over various other members of the mid-major upper crust. RPI: 9th. At-large bid, barring a total collapse in Horizon League play: secure.
So, how are they doing it, and do they have a chance of repeating their Sweet 16 successes of 2003 and 2007? I watched their 78-55 demolition of Loyola of Chicago--a streaky, front-running team with wins over Georgia and UW-Green Bay and a slew of ugly losses to virtually every other halfway-decent team on the schedule--to find out. Impressions:
Matt Howard is a beastly beast. He's just too big, too smart, and too active for teams on this level. Check the final line: 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, all in just 24 minutes. A team like Loyola not only doesn't have an answer for a player of Howard's high-major ability--if he played for, say, UCLA the national press would be writing sonnets about him--they can barely claim to have even been asked the question.
To boot, it's not only Howard, it's the threat of Howard that puts so much pressure on the defense. An example from the opening minutes: Howard makes a cut towards the basket and gets a nice Princeton-style bounce pass on the left side of the key. Immediately two Rambler defenders converge, and bother his running shot enough that it glances off the rim. But Howard, being the sort that makes coaches drool, follows his shot and causes a third defender to slide over to try and keep the rebound away from him. And so when that rebound is tipped to the far side of the rim, nobody's even close to the Butler guard who collects the rebound and lazily lays it in.
The Bulldogs have a lot of good players--more on them in a sec--but Howard really is the straw that stirs this particular drink.
The Bulldog offense might be better than it was last year. Butler's departed senior guard tandem of A.J. Graves and Mike Green deserved every one of the hosannas they got during those 2007 and 2008 tournament runs, but truth be told, they were both a little on the streaky side as shooters. Graves, in particular, had a knack for making you forget the first six routine threes he'd missed by raining in a miracle shot at the end of the shot clock on his seventh. When you've got a terror like Howard in the middle and a well-run, time-tested drive-and-kick offensive scheme, you're going to get open 3's, and it's not really surprising to think that if Butler surrounded Howard with could find a few more consistent shooters, they could be outright explosive on that end. (Or, at least, as explosive as the 312th-fastest team in D-I can be.)
So, enter freshmen Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward, each of which look like cold-blooded killers on the outside and hit 5 of Butler's first 6 three-point attempts against Loyola. Result: 27-7 Bulldog lead and a big flashing GAME OVER on the home scoreboard just 10 minutes in. (No word on whether Loyola asked for their quarter back.) Mack and Hayward wrapped up the game 6-for-11 from deep. If they continue shooting like that, very few teams in the Horizon are going to keep up with them.
(For the record, Kenpom's adjusted efficiency numbers say the 2009 Bulldogs are a little better than the 2008 version, but Butler has dropped off from 1.11 points-per-possession to 1.06. The big problem? Their turnover rate has gone up fairly dramatically, from the 11th-best mark in the country to the 101st. But as Mack gets more comfortable running the point and the other youngsters gain more experience, that number should drop.)
Hayward is a stud. Both he and Mack looked every bit like two of the top 25 freshmen in the country--as John Gasaway labeled them recently--but Hayward was particularly impressive, attacking the defensive glass like it had it said something about his Momma and getting a hand on more loose balls than I cared to count. As excellent as Mack is at the point, I wonder if it's Hayward who's the more valuable of the two, since Graves and Green were phenomenal defensive rebounders and would be way, way more sorely missed if a demon like Hayward wasn't around.
Defense? It's hard to imagine that without hawks like Graves and Green the Butler D would actually improve, but improve it has--from .94 points-a-possession allowed to .9, from 51st in kenpom's D-rating to 47th. Watching the Loyola game, it would be hard to pin down precisely why--thanks to Hayward and Howard the defensive glass was locked down, and Mack (and his 3 steals) showed a propensity for some very quick hands. But mostly, it seemed just the same-ol' same-ol' from Butler: fleet-footed, well-communicated, terrifically sound man-to-man defense. Looking at the Bulldogs' relative lack of height and quickness (Howard aside on the former, Mack aside on the latter) it's hard to say exactly where they're making up for the absence of Graves and Green and all the other heroes of yesteryear. But the stats--and the fact that you could look up from time to time during the game and notice that the Ramblers suddenly hadn't hit a field goal in five minutes--suggest that's exactly what they're doing. More observation is needed.
Weak points? Whenever Howard left the court, Butler got small--Garrett Butcher and Avery Jukes may be listed at 6-7 and 6-8, but they didn't exactly either look it or play like it. As soon as Howard sat down, Loyola saw much better success getting to the glass and attacking the rim. It's little wonder that with Howard sitting with foul trouble against Detroit the game previous, Butler was outrebounded by 7 and only won by 4 on their home court.
NCAA possibilities? That lack of quality size means that Butler would have a very, very hard time slaying any Goliaths if Howard got in foul trouble or had an off-game--they'd have to keep him on the court to have any chance.
But if Howard is able to play a productive 30-35 minutes and the threes are falling, Butler becomes a terrifying opponent--particularly for a smaller team that can't utilize a size advantage--because of their defense and that turtle-esque pace, which pulls games into close, tight contests like gravity. Then again, if Howard's off and Mack and Hayward aren't on from outside? The Bulldogs are an easy mark. I would imagine it's feast or famine.
So in the end I'd say all the comparisons that say "they're just as good as last year!" are about right: a first-round win and second-round scare of one of the higher-ups are definitely within reach, but more than that will take a really special performance.
Loyolathoughts. Not much to see here, really: the Ramblers seemed to have a lot of solid mid-major-type players--there was no drop-off, and possibly even some improvement, when they went to the bench--and they played as hard as could be expected, given the early 20-point hole. But to break down a defense like Butler's you've got to either have a red-hot night shooting the ball or a genuinely talented offensive star, and Loyola had neither. Based on this game, at least, it's hard to see them making any real noise in the Horizon, either regular season or at the conference tourney.