Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- When the BracketBusters schedule was announced, one game stood out, and while both teams involved have had a tough time in the last couple of weeks, #27 Butler’s (22-4, 13-3) trip to face #33 Davidson (22-5, 15-2) should still be a great game to watch.
First things first, I have to mention Stephen Curry; the most recent news I have is that Bob McKillop is ‘optimistic’ Curry will play. Obviously, whether or not he plays, and how close he is to 100%, will basically be a determining factor in this game. I’m assuming below he will play, but I’ll mention some caveats throughout.
Butler ran through the first three months of the season with an excellent 19-1 record, including a win over Xavier and a series of other respectable victories. February has brought some trouble to the Bulldogs, however, as they are just 3-3 on the month, and enter this game on a two game losing streak, after falling to Loyola and Milwaukee. They can still be caught for the Horizon title, and given that the final is hosted at the higher seed, they need to shake themselves out of this slump. Davidson has a similar story, having cruised through much of the conference season, and putting up a strong non-conference performance, including a win over West Virginia and a close finish against Oklahoma in Norman. The Wildcats’ 2-2 record in their last four SoCon games is a collapse for them; the last time they had a run that bad was in February of 2006. Their two losses have come against the 2nd and 3rd placed teams in the conference, Charleston and the Citadel, but still hurt, especially when they could generate only 46 points at home against the Bulldogs.
Butler has built a reputation over the past few seasons of being a strong offensive team that plays at a very slow pace, and depends on ball control and the three-point shot. This year, the Bulldogs have broken with this quite a bit, playing a quicker, and more turnover-prone game. Butler is still a heavily three-dependent team, taking more than 45% of shots from behind the arc, making 36.5% of them, and while it is committing more turnovers, it has also done much better on the offensive glass, evening out the possession count. Butler also gets a lot of points at the free throw line, but isn’t too strong in the paint. It’s surprising, but Davidson has actually been better defensively than offensively on the season. The Wildcats defend the inside very well, and force a good number of turnovers, but do foul opponents a little too often for comfort. They aren’t great at stopping the three-point shot, so Butler could cause them a lot of trouble.
With all the focus on Stephen Curry’s ability to create, and make, shots, the real strength of the Davidson offense is often overlooked: its spectacular turnover rate, among the top 5 in the country. The Wildcats give up the ball on just 16% of possessions, and when combined with their above-average offensive rebounding, they produce a lot of extra opportunities for Curry to do his thing. Davidson’s percentages aren’t impressive at all, and they don’t get to the free throw line much, so they need the possession advantage to stay efficient. Butler may not do well on the offensive interior, but on the defensive end it’s a whole different story. The Bulldogs allow opponents to shoot just 42% from inside, and are solid defensive rebounders. They also do a good job defending the perimeter, and if Curry is not in the line-up, Davidson will have a tough time making shots.
The strength of the Butler program is really quite impressive, as the Bulldogs are 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 the team’s key player, a good scorer 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 rebounds, shot blocks and 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 been very impressive as a freshman point guard, distributing the ball well, though his shooting touch has gone south of late, making just12 of his last 41 attempts. The third freshman starter, Ronald Nored, has not been as strong, struggling with 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 6-24 from two. Shawn Vanzant is another backup guard who had big games against Wright St. and UIC, but has otherwise been pretty quiet. Avery Jukes provides some frontcourt depth, he’s an effective rebounder and inside scorer who has flashed a three-point shot on occasion.
No team in the nation depends on a single player as much as Davidson does on Stephen Curry (though Lester Hudson and Tenn. Martin come close), so it’s no stretch to say that their chances almost entirely depend on him. Curry is, of course, the nation’s leading scorer, and shoots well from just about everywhere on the court. He’s also one of the nation’s better ball handling guards, leading the SoCon in assists, and posting a low turnover rate. His ability to get steals also provides a lot of benefit, as he sits tenth nationally in the category. If Curry is out, the man of the moment might be Nigerian forward Andrew Lovedale, a solid inside scorer who is critical to Davidson’s hopes on the glass. He’s also the team’s best shot-blocker, and will need to be offensively assertive to get his team to a win. Stephen Rossiter starts alongside Lovedale in the frontcourt: the junior is efficient in his limited offensive chances, but really does his work on the boards and defensively. The backcourt will likely have to step up even if Curry plays, given that he probably won’t be at 100%. Quebecers Max Paulhus Gosselin and Will Archambault are both important pieces: Gosselin didn’t play against the Citadel, and it’s not clear if he’ll return for this game, but when he’s in he’s a good defender who can make the occasional shot. Archambault gets a lot of minutes off the bench, and is a capable scorer inside and outside who struggles at the free throw line. Bryant Barr and coach’s son Brendan McKillop are a pair of solid complementary players who make threes and don’t turn the ball over. Freshman Ben Allison has seen his minutes dwindle in recent games, but is still capable of a scoring burst, while senior Can Civi started the Citadel game, and was ineffective in a handful of minutes.
If Curry were fully healthy, Davidson would probably be my pick, but without him at 100%, Butler’s defense should be too good for whatever attack the Wildcats muster. With Butler’s long-distance shooters looking to have an advantage in this one as well, they should be able to take an important victory.
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.
Editor's Early Preview
*Made on 02/06. Full preview by the GameNight staff coming soon!
The premier BracketBuster game features Superman Curry vs. the Butler Bulldogs. On a neutral court or in Indy, I'd favor the Bulldogs, but it's hard not to favor the Cats at home.
Early Prediction: Davidson