Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
--A pair of Horizon League teams take to the floor when #12 Butler (15-1, 6-0) travels north to Chicago to face the #140 UIC Flames (9-7, 2-4).
Butler is again occupying its now-ubiquitous position atop the Horizon standings, entering tonight’s encounter on a seven game winning streak and with an unblemished conference record. This includes some comfortable victories over the likes of Wright St. and Loyola, but also some close calls against Cleveland St. and Detroit. Butler’s non-conference record is similarly impressive, with a some wins over good teams from the Valley in Drake, Bradley and Evansville, a solid victory over UAB and easily handling Xavier on the road. UIC had a quietly solid first month and a half, getting good wins at power conference opponents Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, and taking decent losses to Bradley and Illinois St.. Since the holiday break, though, things have fallen apart for the Flames, as they suffered a four-game losing streak over a difficult stretch of games that included three of the league’s top four teams. UIC enters on a good note after beating Valparaiso, and is a team that is better than its conference record would suggest.
Since it started its streak of 20-win seasons four years ago, Butler has consistently hung its hat on strong offensive play, and this year is no exception. The Bulldogs manage to keep this level of play with one of the least two-point-dependent offenses in the country, relying on strong three-point shooting and a significant amount of free-throw attempts. Butler is still a good team with the ball, but not the seemingly turnover-free unit it was a couple of years ago. It makes up for this inside, where its offensive rebounding has improved substantially, to the point where it is now squarely at the national average. UIC will have a decent defensive matchup with Butler on the perimeter, where the Flames are quite strong, but lately it has forced few turnovers and struggled on the glass, and it can’t afford to gift Butler an advantage in possessions, given the Bulldogs’ efficiency.
UIC is not overly effective on the offensive end, but it is above-average, a good achievement considering it shoots fairly poorly, just 46.8 eFG%, and gets to the line only sparingly. The Flames are good at preventing turnovers and crashing the offensive glass, and when they get free throw attempts, they generally put them away, well over 75% on the season. However, Butler’s solid shooting defense both inside and outside will cause UIC a lot of problems, and the Bulldogs are strong enough on the defensive boards that UIC won’t recover too many of its likely numerous misses. UIC’s hopes will be pinned on the free throw line, it must get there more often than usual to stay in it.
UIC depends on a strong inside-outside pair of seniors in 5-11 Josh Mayo and 7-footer Scott VanderMeer. Mayo is one of the Horizon’s best guards, leading the conference in scoring while also chipping in nearly four assists a game and shooting at a solid percentage, including from three, where he is a 39% shooter, and the free throw line, where he hits 89% of attempts. VanderMeer cooled off as the Flames’ losing streak began, just 13-for-39 from the field in the last four games, but he’s the Horizon’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker, and can be a effective offensive force down low. Sophomore Robert Kreps and junior Spencer Stewart start alongside Mayo in the backcourt, and both get a good chunk of minutes. Stewart leads the team in both assists and steals, but needs to work on his shot selection, under 30% from behind the arc. Kreps is another struggling shooter who can suddenly get hot, including 23 at Vanderbilt and 23 in the Flames’ last game against Valparaiso. 6-5 senior Tori Boyd is the fifth starter, he’s an average sort of player who is an effective scoring option, especially inside, and is coming in on a roll. UIC doesn’t have a lot of reliable depth, the only players getting significant minutes off the bench are juniors Rob Eppinger and Jeremy Buttell, a couple of solid rebounders who don’t score a whole lot.
If I were a fan of a non-Butler HL team, I would be very worried. The Bulldogs are the league leaders despite having one of the youngest rosters in the nation. There are no seniors, and only one junior gets any significant playing time. Sophomore forward Matt Howard is clearly the team’s leader, a good shooter who excels at getting to the free throw line, and leads the team in scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking. Three freshmen feature in the starting line-up, led by one of the country’s best young shooters in Gordon Hayward. The 6-8 Hayward is a multi-talented force, among the best in the Horizon in rebounding and in steals, while shooting over 45% from behind the arc. He can run a bit hot and cold, but if he’s hot, he’s very dangerous. Shelvin Mack has done a good job as a freshman point guard, distributing the ball well and also showing a good shooting touch. The third freshman starter, Ronald Nored, has not been as strong, struggling to find his shot, especially from the line, where he is under 50%. Willie Veasley is the old hand in the line-up as a junior starter, and leads the team in two-point percentage despite being only 6-3. Zach Hahn is an effective three-point shooter off the bench, but that’s really all he can do, shooting just 4-17 from two. Shawn Vanzant is another backup guard who has really struggled to find his shot. Avery Jukes is the main reserve forward, an effective rebounder and inside scorer who has flashed a three-point shot on occasion.
UIC has found itself on a surprising free-fall, and while it found some form against Valpo, this is not a game in which a team can hope to struggle through, as the Bulldogs boast the conference’s best offense. UIC may have some success defending the Bulldogs’ three-point shooting, but its own shooting has just not been consistent enough to get them to a victory. I expect a close one, but the visitors should pull it out.
Winner: Butler Margin: 4-8
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.