Game of the Week: #16 Southern Illinois at #13 Butler (Saturday, 4:00 PM, ESPN2)
The Bracket Buster weekend was created to help some of the mid-major teams that don’t get a lot of national attention make an impression on the Selection Committee with nationally televised games all weekend. However, that has not been the case at times. Mid-major coverage is growing in general with the Final Four run of George Mason last season, and the overall play of the Missouri Valley Conference. Is the Bracket Buster still necessary? Some say that losses hurt more than wins help; others say that it is a great chance for a lower-tier team to get a big win to boost their at-large resume. Personally, I don’t think that the middle of the stretch run in conference play is the best time to do it, with teams focused on winning conference championships and fighting for conference tournament seedings. Despite that, it still provides for one of the best weekends of the college basketball season. This year, the best game is clearly Southern Illinois at Butler. Both teams have a chance to make some real noise in March, and will be on center stage Saturday afternoon.
Southern Illinois is one of the most underrated teams in the country, and the Salukis are capable of making a run in the NCAA Tournament. They lead the Missouri Valley Conference by one game over Creighton, and will go into the conference tournament as the favorite. Ranked #8 in the RPI, SIU is 21-5 overall (13-3 in the MVC) and has looked impressive throughout most of the year. The Salukis started off the season with two easy wins before heading to Orlando for a preseason tournament. There, they fell to Arkansas in overtime, but bounced back to knock off Minnesota and Virginia Tech. SIU won five of their last six non-conference games, the only loss at Indiana. They picked up solid wins at Western Kentucky and over Saint Louis. They didn’t start off too well in conference play, only going 3-2 over their first five. However, they have been on a tear since then, winning ten of their last eleven to move into first-place. The Salukis average just less than 63 points per game, which is last in the conference. On the other hand, SIU is third in the country in scoring defense, allowing less than 56 points per game. Ken Pomeroy has the Salukis as the 79th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 13th-most efficient defensive team.
Butler is one of the big surprise teams this season, and have an excellent shot at giving the Horizon League an NCAA Tournament win for the third season in a row. The Bulldogs are in second place in the conference, a half-game behind Wright State. Ranked #30 in the RPI, Butler is 22-3 (11-2 in the Horizon) and has been rolling since the season’s outset. They opened the season with ten straight wins, including a Preseason NIT title in which they beat Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga. The Bulldogs also knocked off Notre Dame prior to the NIT. Their first loss was at Indiana State, but the Bulldogs ran off four straight victories after the defeat, including a win over Purdue. Butler went 3-0 in conference play before falling to Illinois-Chicago on the road in overtime. They dominated opponents for the next nine games, with a victory margin of almost 20 points per contest. This past weekend, though, the Bulldogs went on the road and fell to Wright State, leaving them in second place heading into the week. Butler puts scores over 69 points per game, good enough for second in the conference, and only gives up 56.1 a contest, putting them at fifth in the nation. The Bulldogs are also 15th in the country in scoring margin. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Bulldogs have the 14th-most efficient offense and the 42nd-most efficient defense in the country.
Southern Illinois Team Breakdown
Southern Illinois has been one of the most consistent teams in college basketball over the past few years. This season, they might have their best team in recent memory. The Salukis play outstanding defense, allowing only two teams to reach 70 points this season. They have held nine teams to 50 points or below, as well. SIU really gets out on the ball and makes it difficult for opponents to get into their regular offensive sets. They force turnovers and force bad shots. Offensively, the Salukis are not as good, but they have multiple weapons and are extremely clutch down the stretch of games. They are certainly not explosive, but they got the job done most of the time. The Salukis have a decent amount of depth, with nine guys averaging double-figure minutes. Look for them to make noise in March.
The frontcourt of the Salukis is led by Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year candidate Randal Falker. He is a terrific rebounder and defender who changes the game with his ability to block shots. He leads the conference in blocked shots and is third in rebounds. Offensively, he is extremely efficient shooting the ball, and is tough to stop when he gets the ball down low. Falker has seven double-doubles this season, and has blocked at least four shots on seven occasions. However, Falker tends to get in foul trouble at times, and is turnover-prone inside. Starting next to him up front is 6-7 junior Matt Shaw. Shaw is an inside-outside threat offensively, with his ability to hit the three-pointer and get points on the interior, either driving to the basket or posting up. He is also a good rebounder and is one of the best free-throw shooters in the conference. He has improved mightily since last year, getting quicker at both ends of the floor and knocking down more perimeter shots. On the downside, Shaw is somewhat inconsistent on the offensive end. After carrying SIU to a victory at Creighton with 25 points, he went 0 for 6 and fouled out in only 14 minutes on Tuesday at Missouri State with just 3 points. Backing them up is 6-8 sophomore Tony Boyle. He is a physical player who provides rebounding and defense off the bench.
The perimeter group for Southern Illinois is deep and talented. It starts with leading scorer Jamaal Tatum. He is an excellent scorer who is one of the best three-point shooters in the conference. He can pass the ball well, and is quick on the defensive end. He can play both guard positions, and has played at least 28 minutes in a game all but three times this season. He tends to take too many shots, and is inconsistent inside the arc. Moreover, he is a very good free-throw shooter, but has struggled down the stretch from the line in games lately. Despite being hampered by a deep thigh bruise, Tatum carried SIU down the stretch against Missouri State. Also in the backcourt is Tony Young. One of the best defensive players in the country, Young usually shuts down the opponents’ best perimeter scorer, garnering him the nickname “Secretary of Defense”. He doesn’t look for his shot as much as Tatum, but he can shoot three well, and has the ability to score when necessary, as evidenced by his 25-point outing last week against Bradley. Young is an excellent free-throw shooter, and is a decent rebounder and distributor. Like most of the Salukis, he is very good late in games. Running the point for the Salukis is sophomore Bryan Mullins. At 6-2 and 190, he is surprisingly the biggest of the three smallish guards for Southern Illinois. Mullins is very good at running the show for SIU, with his ability to pass the ball and see the court. He is an extremely hard-worker who is also an above-average defender. Mullins does not turn the ball over very often, and has really played well lately. Coming off the bench for SIU are three 6-3 guards. Wesley Clemmons is a good scorer and rebounder who has seen more playing time as of late; Joshua Bone has seen his playing time slip lately, but he takes care of the ball; and Tyrone Green is an outstanding defensive player.
Butler Team Breakdown
Butler has been arguably the most surprising team in college basketball this season. Chosen to finish 7th in my preseason rankings in the Horizon, the Bulldogs are in position to get a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament. Butler is not the most athletic team around, but they are fundamentally sound and can beat different types of teams. Defensively, they force teams out of their normal offense and make them play a half-court game. They have allowed only five teams to reach 70 points, and have held 12 opponents to 50 points or fewer on the year. Offensively, they really slow the game down and make opposing teams play defense for 30 seconds on each possession. The Bulldogs don’t turn the ball over, and are very efficient shooting the ball. They have quality depth, similar to Southern Illinois, with nine guys seeing 13 minutes or more per game. This is a team that could make it to the second weekend in March, depending on the match-up.
Butler’s frontcourt is far less heralded than their backcourt, but it is solid nonetheless. Brandon Crone leads the way. The 6-6 senior has started 68 straight games for the Bulldogs, and is the best offensive option up front. He is the third-leading scorer on the team, and is second in rebounds. He gets most of his points inside the arc, but is an inconsistent shooter offensively. Crone is averaging almost 12 points and 7 rebounds over his past three games, and can do a little bit of everything for Butler. The two other main options in the frontcourt come off the bench. Pete Campbell is a big-time scorer for the Bulldogs, averaging almost 9 points per game in only 13 minutes. He has scored at least 9 points in his last 13 games, and scored in double-figures in 12 of them. Campbell is averaging about 14 points per game over his last 12 Horizon League contests. He is an outstanding three-point shooter, hitting over 51% of his long-range shots. Campbell is also good at the free-throw line. If he gets hot, look out. Drew Streicher also comes off the bench for Butler. He is arguably the most efficient player in the country—in Horizon League games, Streicher is hitting 82% of his shots. He has missed only four shots in conference play. He is also a good rebounder who contributes in a variety of ways. He is clutch at the free-throw line, and doesn’t turn the ball over often. Starting next to Crone are seniors Julian Betko and Brian Ligon. They are fifth and six on the team in minutes played, respectively, but they are in the starting lineup every night out, and contribute. Betko is a 6-5 wing who can do a lot of things. He can shoot the ball well, and he is also a solid rebounder and passer. Ligon has shown flashes of what he can do, but he sticks to rebounding and defense for the most part.
The backcourt for Butler is one of the best in the country—and also one of the most underrated. A.J. Graves has really blossomed into a household name this season. He was named to the Wooden Award midseason list, which includes only 30 players. Graves is a terrific scorer who can carry the Bulldogs if needed. He burst onto the national scene early this season, when he averaged over 22 points per game against Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga. Graves is one of the best free-throw shooters in the country, knocking down foul shots at a 96.5% clip. Graves is also a solid defender and rebounder who can distribute the ball efficiently. Graves can shoot the ball from three, and also drive to the basket for points. He has scored in single-digits only twice this season. His partner is 6-0 junior Mike Green. He does everything well for the Bulldogs. He is second on the team in scoring, but he leads the team in rebounding, and is third in the conference in assists. Green does not shoot the ball very well, but he is one of the best all-around players at the mid-major level. He is capable of beating an opponent in a variety of ways, and he is also a very good defender. Backing up Graves and Green are Willie Veasley and Marcus Nellems. Veasley is a solid swingman who provides very good minutes on the perimeter for Butler, while Nellems gives the Bulldogs shooting off the bench.
Most Bracket Buster games aren’t as big as this one. Two of the best teams in the country, nationally-ranked in the Top 20 and fighting for protected seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Butler has been on the nation’s radar since the first couple of weeks of the season, while Southern Illinois has quietly done their business in the Missouri Valley. Both of these teams have a legit shot to be “this year’s George Mason”, although no one will be surprised it they make a run.
In order for Southern Illinois to pull off the win on the road, they will need to do several things. First, they will need their offense to be there all game. With both teams being such stout defensive groups, timely baskets and clutch foul-shots will make all the difference. SIU struggles at times offensively, especially with Randal Falker out of the game. If their offense stagnates for extended periods of time, the Salukis could be in some trouble. Secondly, as I mentioned before, SIU needs Falker to be in the game. Butler does not have anyone that can match-up with Falker, and that could be a big advantage for the Salukis. If Falker gets into foul trouble, that will take away SIU’s best rebounder and interior defender. Defensively, SIU has to take A.J. Graves out of his game. Tony Young is an excellent defender, and will likely be assigned to Graves. He has a tendency to force shots at times, but could be a nightmare for Southern Illinois if he gets hot. Butler doesn’t turn the ball over often, and SIU thrives on their half-court defensive pressure. The Bulldogs are fundamentally sound, meaning that the Salukis will have to work extra hard to take Butler out of their normal sets. Down the stretch, which seems to be what every SIU game comes down to, they will have to hit their free throws. The Salukis played very well against Missouri State in the closing minutes, especially Jamaal Tatum. If he doesn’t force shots and gets baskets in key spots, he could be a key part.
Butler needs a big win to get back on track after their loss to Wright State, and their not-so-impressive performance Tuesday night against Florida Gulf Coast. Offensively, they will need to take care of the ball. Southern Illinois loves to get out on their opponents in the half-court and create havoc with their defense. If Butler turns the ball over, it will lead to baskets for Southern Illinois, making it tough for the Bulldogs to win. Graves and Mike Green have to carry the Bulldogs’ offense. Butler has several options, but Graves and Green are their two most consistent ones. They will each need to have big games in order for Butler to win. Moreover, the Bulldogs need to try to get Falker in foul trouble. He tends to commit fouls often when going for blocks. If they can get him out of the game, that will be huge for the Bulldogs. Defensively, they need to stop Falker and Matt Shaw. Brian Ligon will get the start for Butler, and he is the biggest player the Bulldogs have—at 6-7, 240. The Bulldogs really don’t have a player that can defend Falker in the paint, but they have held big men in check before—witness Purdue’s Carl Landry only taking five shots against Butler. As for Shaw, he is a tough, inside-outside threat offensively. Brandon Crone and Pete Campbell will likely get that assignment. On the perimeter, Butler has to force Tatum to take bad shots. He has a tendency to force shots and jack up too many jumpers, but if he gets going, SIU will really have an advantage due to their balance. In the end, despite the fact that Butler is at home, I think that SIU has too many weapons offensively, and their defense will keep them in it on the road. Moreover, in a game that will be decided by a few points, SIU’s outstanding play down the stretch in recent games will get them the victory.
Prediction: Southern Illinois 56, Butler 53
Prediction Record: 7-3