Entering the season, Butler coach Brad Stevens deflected all questions on his team’s chances at the Final Four, however legitimate they could have been. Stevens had guided his young team, picked fourth in their conference, to another Horizon League Championship, and in the NCAA Tournament, they lost to LSU . With everyone, literally, every single player back from the surprise squad, whisperings of a 30 win season began to escalate around Indianapolis. A top ten ranking seemed to validate the high expectations. However, just a month into the season, Butler has lost three times, albeit to strong opponents. If the Bulldogs can’t knock off Minnesota, Clemson or Georgetown, they might have a tough time advancing to the Final Four. Luckily, they get a chance to somewhat redeem themselves when #15 Ohio State rolls into Indy to take on now #20 Butler. The Buckeyes will certainly be handicapped without their All-American point forward, Evan Turner. Ohio State possesses astounding depth, and this is their first Turner-less game. Butler needs a win to hang their hats on come March. This could be their last chance.
Butler is keyed by hybrid small forward Gordon Hayward. Widely considered by media pundits as the mid-major player to watch, Hayward has not disappointed thus far. His smooth stroke has range outside the three point line, but at, 6-9, he’s lethal on the glass, hauling in around 8 boards a game. With Turner on the sidelines, Hayward may be the most intriguing pro prospect performing on Saturday morning. Accompanying Hayward in the frontcourt is more conventional big man Matt Howard. Howard’s stockier frame suggests he’s a low post banger, and he certainly can do a number in the paint. Because of this, it’s almost a surprise when he steps out and pops a 15 footer. That is in his arsenal, and it will be interesting to see how he exploits that against the shot swatting Dallas Lauderdale. Coming off the bench for the Bulldogs is Avery Jukes. Jukes, like just about everyone else on the roster, can knock down threes with consistency. That’s probably his biggest asset, as he isn’t particularly capable on the glass. These three are really the only three forwards in Butler’s rotation. What they lack in size they make for in backcourt depth.
The headliner in this unit is point guard Shelvin Mack. Mack is a very strong player, with the ability to take it to the rack or convert the trey, which he hits at a 40% clip. Because Butler does not feature a player taller than 6-9, Mack, at 6-3, is a very active rebounder. He’s third on the team in that category. Willie Veasley is very similar to Mack. Both are bigger guards with the ability to rebound, but Mack is more of a facilitator. If Butler is going to hang with the Buckeyes, they need Mack and Veasley to rebound like forwards. Zach Hahn is the spot up jump shooter. About 70% of his shots come from beyond the arc. Hahn’s job is just to knock down his open looks. Ronald Nored sees a lot of playing time because of his defense. He comfortably leads the team in steals, is aggressive on the boards and is a pass first point guard. Shawn Vanzant, like Hahn, is more comfortable spotting up from long distance than driving into the paint.
Butler will have their work cut out for them on the low block, although without Turner, the Buckeyes will be less formidable on the glass. In order for Butler to win, Howard can not take his conventional approach and go straight at Lauderdale, a very underrated defender. Howard is a bigger guy, but Lauderdale is simply too strong. Instead, Howard has to be willing to step out occasionally. Lure Lauderdale out of the paint, which will open lanes for Mack, Veasley and Hayward to slash in for easy layups. Hayward, Mack and Howard have to hold their own on the boards. This game won’t be pretty if they can’t hang within ten of the Bucks. The simplest key for Butler may be the toughest to execute; defend the three pointer. Ohio State is shooting 42% as a team from deep, and five guys have launched 15 or more long balls. Jon Diebler is connecting on 52% of his treys, while Jeremie Simmons is knocking down 54%. If given the chance, Ohio State will shoot itself into a big lead.
One All-American point guard less, Ohio State will turn to senior floor general PJ Hill for guidance on the court. It isn’t like there is a shortage of passing. The Buckeyes dish out 20 assists a game, and only 6 came from Turner. Hill will have the title of point guard, and he started late in the year in 2008-09. He’s capable of scoring, and is a pesky defender. His top running mate is Jon Diebler, the sweet shooting guard. Diebler was the beneficiary of many Turner assists, and if he gets hot, he’s arguably the best shooter in the business. William Buford, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year a season ago, can be a hot shooter when he’s on. But Buford is only hitting 35% of his shot attempts. Despite this funk, he’s good for 11 points a game. Sixth man Jeremie Simmons is knocking down everything he takes. With a shooting percentage upwards of 60, Simmons is reaching territory usually reserved for big men seven inches taller and 80 pounds heavier. Although he started last season for much of the year, Simmons clearly benefits from coming off the bench.
One of the biggest reasons Ohio State is off to such a start is the fact that David Lighty is back after taking a medical redshirt last season. Lighty will be the team’s leading rebounder without Turner, and is one of the Big Ten’s premier defenders. Like Turner, he does a little of everything. His play doesn’t draw a lot of attention, but his athleticism and defensive prowess were sorely missed last season. Joining him is the shot blocking ace Dallas Lauderdale. Lauderdale isn’t the first name that comes to mind when shot blockers are mentioned, although he’s on pace to reject about 100 potential buckets. On offense, Lauderdale is making 90% of his shot attempts, missing twice on the year. That’s incredible. Although Turner was the point guard, his rebounding will need to be picked up by the triumvirate of Kyle Madsen, Nicola Kecman and Zisis Sarikopoulus, who will see a spike in their minutes. Madsen started in Lauderdale’s stead the first game of the season due to an injury. He doesn’t have Lauderdale’s skill set, but he’s a hard-working player. Kecman isn’t really a rebounding big man, many of his shots come from outside the paint and from three point territory. The 7 foot Sarikipoulus is incredibly raw, but he has potential. At 7 feet, 265, he’s the likely candidate to pick up most of Turner’s rebounds.
Ohio State needs to work their size advantage down low. Lauderdale is an immovable force who just does not miss. He averages around 7 points a game, but that’s because he hasn’t had to be the go to guy. Expect him to reach double digits today. Everyone is going to need to pick up the slack due to Turner’s absence. Losing a guy who plays four positions always hurts. If guys like Hill, Lauderdale and Sarikipoulus can respond with big games, the Buckeyes may not suffer as much as projected. This is their first chance to prove that they’re worthy of a top 15 ranking without their MVP and team leader.
Ohio State may struggle early on. Although they went 33 minutes without their star, that was against Eastern Michigan. Coming into Hinkle Fieldhouse to play the nationally ranked Butler Bulldogs is a little different. But the Buckeyes will respond accordingly, and walk away with a good looking road “W”, 79-67.