It has been a weird two seasons at Butler following the departure of Brad Stevens to the NBA. Their rapid moves from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 to the Big East caught up with them under first-year head coach (and former Butler PG) Brandon Miller, as they went 14-17 and fell to the bottom of their new conference. In the aftermath of that rare dip into mediocrity, Miller took time off
to sleep with the fishes for an unspecified medical condition, interim coach Chris Holtmann took over and the Butler machine went right back to work. They went 22-10 and 12-6 in the Big East, playing exactly the type of ugly, rugged and borderline dirty basketball the program has become known for.
The biggest change for the Bulldogs is their recruiting is starting to pick up, as they are getting the type of athletes they never really had in the heydey of Stevens. There's no Gordon Hayward on this roster, but Butler is bringing 6'6 215 and 6'8 245 off the bench. So while they will still be smaller than Texas, they shouldn't be overwhelmed physically. Texas is the more talented team but they aren't going to be able to roll the ball out and win like they were playing Texas Tech or TCU or Kansas State. They are going to have to play some real basketball to advance.
Butler has a big shiny W on their resume in the form of a victory over UNC in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they followed that up with a 13-point loss to OU where they scored only 46 points as well as double digit losses to Indiana and Tennessee in non-conference. Combine that with 2 losses against Villanova and you are looking at a team that can struggle with the type of athleticism you find on a high-major team. The transition to being an elite Big East program isn't over yet - Butler still has plenty of mid-major guys on the roster.
Given the amount of size and ahleticism that Texas has, a well-coached team that runs good offense should be able to pull away from Butler in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game. Of course, if you are reading this, you know that isn't exactly a given with a Rick Barnes helmed squad. With two defensive-minded teams who struggle to score and relish playing physically going at it, I'm expecting a brutal grind it out affair that will go to the team that does a better job of executing in the half-court in the final minutes.
PG - Alex Barlow (5'11 190) - Your generic senior PG who shoots 3's, takes care of the ball and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's kind of cut out of central casting for Butler - he was a walk-on who wants to get into coaching who makes the most out of fairly limited athletic ability. He will concede the jumper to the Texas guards and then foul the shit out of them when they try to exploit driving lanes when they aren't there. The key will be for Taylor and Felix not to bail him out with a bad jumper and not to lose composure when he bumps and jostles them in ways the refs won't call.
SG - Kellen Dunham (6'6 185) - There's a lot of Kyle Korver in his game. He's their leading scorer and they run him off a lot of screens to get open 3's. You can't leave him open for any amount of time and you have to get the ball out of his hands when he's a threat to shoot. He's a fairly good passer when he's double teamed but he's not a guy whose going to break down the defense and create shots for anyone else either. Dunham seems tailor made for DeMarcus Holland defense, which might be the biggest positive headed into this game for Texas.
SF - Roosevelt Jones (6'4 235) - Possibly the most unique player in college basketball. Jones is a floor-bound undersized 4 who plays as a SF/point forward hybrid for Butler. He can't shoot to save his life, but he's a great passer with a good knack for finding cracks in the defense who knows how to use his massive butt to create space and finish in tight confines. He's their backup PG when Barlow isn't in the game and the Bulldogs run most of their offense through him. If you could get him in foul trouble, it would change the complexion of the game.
PF - Andrew Chrabascz (6'7 205) - A poor man's Connor Lammert. He does a lot of stretch 4 things for them but he isn't very big and he's not that great a shooter. This is a guy Texas should be able to take out of the offensive game-plan pretty easy. If he's scoring a lot of points, things have not gone well.
C - Kameron Woods (6'9 200) - Woods is built like Brandan Wright - he's all skin and bones but he's long, he can jump real high and he has a great nose for the basketball. This is the kind of guy who makes more sense as a C in a mid-major conference like the Big East than the Big 12 because it's hard for me to see how a guy with his frame survives wars with guys like Cam Ridley, Rico Gathers, Thomas Gipson etc. He really shouldn't be able to guard the Texas big men 1-on-1, so Butler is going to have to pack the paint.
SF - Kelan Martin (6'6 215) - Martin is the X factor for their team. He's a long and athletic wing player with great size who can erupt for points off their bench. He's not a great shooter but he looks like the future of the program after Jones graduates. Keep an eye on him especially if he's able to use his size to score over the smaller Texas players on the perimeter.
C - Tyler Wideman (6'8 245) - The appropriately named freshman doesn't have a huge role in the Butler game-plan but he has the size and athleticism to at least give them another body to throw at the Texas big men. He could play a big role for them just in terms of buying them minutes upfront over the course of the game.
Keys to the game:
1) Don't turn the ball over - Butler likes to slow the game down and control tempo when they have the ball so the Texas guards have to value possessions on offense. Given the size disparity upfront, you at least want to get the ball on the rim and hope your big men can come up with the offensive board. Turn it over and you negate that advantage. Butler is going to pack the paint, jump passing lanes and try to dare the Texas guards into taking bad 1-on-1 shots. It will be an interesting challenge for Taylor and Felix.
2) Get out and run - This is going to be a tough balance for Taylor to manage given priority No. 1, but the easiest way to score against Butler is to go from defense to offense and get baskets before they have a chance to set up their half-court D. They aren't super athletic which is why they do everything in their power to keep the game in the half-court. The really tricky part is you can't be out of control while you do this because otherwise the Bulldogs will get the ball going the other way and get some easy transition 3's. Kris Dunn at Providence struggled with this dynamic against Butler and he's a much, much better player than Isaiah Taylor at this point in their careers.
3) The Roosevelt Jones match-up - Jones can post up smaller guys and take bigger guys off the dribble, so who draws the assignment over the course of the game? One thing to watch is whether Barnes can play 3 guards and spread the floor or whether he has to keep Jonathan Holmes on Jones, which impedes spacing on offense. Jones is the key for Butler and his ability to dictate match-ups at the SF position is what gives them a chance against more talented teams like Texas.
4) Shoot 3's and open up the floor - Butler has to concede something and it's likely to be open 3 point shots to Felix, Holland, Holmes and Kendal Yancy. If those guys can stick a few 3's and open up their defense, it creates opportunities for the big men, who are way too big and way too skilled for the guys the Bulldogs can throw at them. If Texas can run good offense, create open 3's and knock them down, they should win this game. Those are 3 pretty big ifs though.