Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
The Bulldogs and the noise that you hear
Just 40 days removed from being a popular pick for sixth place in the Horizon League, Butler stands 9-0 and ranked in the top 15 in both major polls.

So what happened? Well, Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz has this to say of the Bulldogs in his midst:

Butler plays a beautiful game, an almost European-style penetrate-and-dish game with heavy emphasis on the three-point shot and defense.

That is without a doubt the first time I've ever seen the modifier "European" in such close and wholly non-ironic proximity to the noun "defense." Be that as it may, Kravitz is on to something. I realize you've heard a lot about Butler already. But here are some things you should know:

1. Butler's defense is better than their offense. (This write-up is DAD-free!)
One of a hoops fan's toughest challenges is distinguishing good defensive teams from teams that merely like a slow pace. Make no mistake, the Bulldogs prefer a deliberate style, averaging just 61 possessions per 40 minutes. But, as it happens, this particular slow team also has a very good defense, one that's allowed just 0.89 points per possession against a schedule that's included Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga.

It's a peculiar type of good defense, though, one characterized thus far by surprisingly stout interior defense, notably outstanding perimeter D, and, most vitally, a flurry of turnovers from opponents. The most encouraging sign by far for Butler fans is the interior D: it's been strong (not phenomenal but very good) against a tough schedule--and that will stand the Bulldogs in good stead moving forward.

Which is important because opponents may not continue to miss 71 percent of their threes or give the ball away on about 25 percent of their possessions. Sure, Butler's perimeter D has helped those ugly numbers along. (While no defender on this team is going to be mistaken for Mario Chalmers, it's also true that Mike Green, Drew Streicher, Julian Betko, and A.J. Graves all average right at or slightly above three steals per 100 possessions. It's felony by committee.) But those numbers are ugly in precisely the areas where a defense has the least control: the opponent's ability to hit outside shots and hold on to the ball. The interior D will have to remain strong.

2. Butler's 2006-07 offense looks a little like West Virginia's in 2005-06.
Hitting a three always gets a big reaction out of the crowd. But you know that extra added volume you hear when a team that's been struggling from outside finally hits one?

The Bulldogs know that sound quite well, thank you. They shoot a lot of threes but, surprisingly, they don't make many threes, shooting just 32.1 percent beyond the arc. Yet they have a very good offense (1.09 points per possession). How can this be?

Kyle Whelliston nails it:

[T]he lesson is this: if you can keep control of the basketball, and not give it up, you'll get a chance to score points (whether in stop-time or on the floor), which in turn is a chance to win. That is why Butler's story is so awesome, and that's why our game is so great.

Butler has been good at scoring points because they've had so many chances to score, turning the ball over on just 16 percent of their possessions. True, Mike Green does turn the ball over--but no other Bulldog does. And in this they resemble a certain team in Morgantown. If there were a glossary of styles in college hoops, the entry under "West Virginia" would read something like this: a superstructure of weak rebounding and frequent-yet-bad outside shooting bolted onto a base of obsessive and indeed masterful ball control.

Indeed, the really distressing thought for opponents is the likelihood that Butler's perimeter shooting will improve. Graves came into the year a career 35.9 percent three-point shooter and has hit just 33.3 percent this year. Green came into the year a career 33.8 percent three-point shooter and has hit just 22.2 percent this year.

3. Butler's been lucky.
No doubt about it. They've played four games decided by six points or less and gone 4-0.

Have they created some of that luck themselves? Absolutely. Look no further than the combined 90.2 FT percentage posted by Graves and Green. (Repeat: two players shooting a combined 90+ percent from the line.) The Bulldogs don't benefit from any egregious advantage in FTAs (a surplus of a little less than three a game) but they create their own advantage in actual free throws made.

Where to now?
Joe Lunardi puts it well ($):

Today, Butler has about an 80 percent chance of playing in the four-letter tournament. Those are great odds for a mid-major after 20 percent of the season. Let's just not look past the next 24 games. I'm betting Todd Lickliter won't let his team fall into the same trap.

The greatest danger facing Butler is the remorseless zero-sum cherry-picker known as the NCAA selection process. The praise is flowing in December--praise costs nothing yet. But if the Bulldogs lose in the Horizon League tournament, any bid given to Butler will be rewarded at the expense of a fourth- or fifth-place team in a "power" conference, one who likely as not will be screaming that "we beat North Carolina," or "we beat Kansas," or "we beat Florida." (Never mind than none of the above come to Hinkle Fieldhouse this year.)

The best insurance against this danger is an ostentatiously small number in the "L" column, one that would embarrass the committee into virtually having to invite this team, one that can be represented with the fingers of one hand. Maybe even with a finger or two left to spare.

Or, better yet, win the league tournament. If Butler can do either, the noise will continue to swell.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wisconsin beat Winthrop 82-79 in OT last night in Madison. Off of the Badgers' second offensive rebound of the possession, Michael Flowers scored off the glass in the closing seconds of regulation to force the OT, which Wisconsin controlled more comfortably than the final score would indicate. Every once in a while two teams score in such different ways that it's almost as if they're playing different sports on the same court. Such was the case last night in the Kohl Center. Facing a packed-in Eagles zone, the Badgers were a futile 6-of-25 outside the arc. (And their best shooter from out there last night was...Alando Tucker? It's true! Tucker went 3-of-4 on his threes; rest of team: 3-of-21.) Meanwhile Torrell Martin of Winthrop went off to the tune of 7-of-11 shooting on his threes and 31 points. The Eagles were even pretty fair on the interior, hitting half of their two-pointers. Overall Winthrop posted a blistering 68.9 effective FG pct., the third-best shooting by or against a Big Ten team so far this year. (Put it this way: better than Ohio State has shot in any game this season.) But Wisconsin was able to overcome an extreme disparity in shooting with extreme disparities of their own in offensive rebounds (21 out of 35 available--Jason Chappell and Brian Butch had four each) and free throws (+24 in FTAs). "I coached at other places where people are always complaining about how many free throws we shot," Bo Ryan said afterward. "We touch the paint, we try to. If you touch the paint, that’s how you can get to the free throw line." (Box score (pdf).)

BONUS Badger personnel note! There's a walking infomercial for tempo-free stats on the Wisconsin roster and his name is Brian Butch. He doesn't play a lot of minutes so his per-game numbers for things like points and rebounds will never rise to the top of the Big Ten. Never mind--he's good (well, except for the free throws). Just look at last night. This was a slow game (63 possessions--and that was with an extra five minutes) and Butch played just 25 minutes, yet he recorded 17 points and nine boards. As it stands this morning, Butch is the best defensive rebounder in the Big Ten (26.6 defensive reb. pct.). Achiever of excellence in scanty minutes Brian Butch, Wonk salutes you!

Purdue plays Loyola tonight in West Lafayette. Matt Painter says his team respects the Ramblers: "I've addressed with our team that Loyola is a postseason team, and they have the potential to play in the NCAA. When I don't see that, I don't try to fool our players." Chris Lutz's PR agent is apparently harder-working than any other Boiler's: dueling profiles of the sophomore guard here and here.

Minnesota plays UAB in Birmingham tonight. The Blazers are coached by former Indiana head man Mike Davis, who says UAB is different--and that's OK: "After the first game we played in Milwaukee, at the press conference we only had two people in there. That's just a totally, totally different atmosphere. It is where I need to be. I need to be here." Recall, too, that before taking the Hoosier head coaching job, Davis was the "interim" coach, just like the Gophers' Jim Molinari....Lawrence McKenzie says he expects the Blazers to press turnover-prone Minnesota: "I know other teams are going to watch the tape, so they're going to press a lot. We have to get better."

Iowa plays Northern Iowa tonight in Iowa City, a series that turns 100 this year. Steve Alford says Panthers Eric Coleman and Grant Stout "are a handful."...Actual item: "Halftime: Tonight's halftime show features David Ogron, the world's fastest golfer. He'll try to hit 90 balls in 70 seconds. Ogron holds several world records, including hitting 10,392 golf balls in 24 hours. He says more than 150 people have tried to break the mark. 'A couple of them landed in the hospital,' he said."

Michigan State home games still sell out but the number of no-shows seems to be increasing--and Tom Izzo doesn't like it. "Teams don't win games by themselves. That's why home winning percentages are much better. It's not because you sleep in the same bed. Hell, the beds in the hotels we sleep in are a lot better than the ones they sleep in in the dorms." Izzo says the no-shows are missing some good hoops: "We're ahead of where I thought we'd be (in wins and losses) and a lot farther ahead in defense and rebounding."...Freshman Raymar Morgan will sit out tomorrow night's game against IPFW with a shin injury. (It's not a stress fracture, reportedly, but it could become one.) He will be evaluated this week.

Penn State junior Geary Claxton is back in the lineup but the rehab of his injured hand is still a work in progress.

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