Butler basketball is in a new era. After becoming one of America’s darlings with their back-to-back runs to the national championship game in 2010-11, the Bulldogs said goodbye to head coach Brad Stevens, who signed a lucrative five-year deal to rebuild the Boston Celtics. The post-Stevens era has not gone well. In spite of seeming to have enough talent on hand to compete, Butler is struggling along at 12-9, and 2-7 in the newly revised Big East Conference. Let’s look at why…
The Bulldogs were hit with an injury in early November, losing forward Roosevelt Jones for the season. I don’t mean to minimize the impact—Jones averaged 10 ppg—but it shouldn’t have been enough to turn a potential conference championship contender into a league also-ran.
Kellen Dunham averages 18 ppg, and the 6’6” sophomore hits a respectable 38 percent from behind the arc. His problem has been inside the three-point line, where 39 percent doesn’t cut it. Dunham has the ability to be as good as any player in the Big East, save Creighton’s Doug McDermott, and Butler needs to hope that Dunham can play more efficiently. Khyle is similar to Dunham—he goes 6’6” and averages 16 ppg. The Dunham-Marshall duo is where the Bulldogs go for points.
There’s not lot of offense beyond these two, though Kameron Woods does get nine boards a game. The player that needs to step up inside is 6’8” senior Erik Fromm, averaging 7 points/4 rebounds a game. At the very least, if Fromm is only going to shoot 28 percent from trey range, he needs to stay inside the arc.
Three-point shooting is a problem in general, something underscored by the fact that Elijah Brown’s primary role on this team is to shoot the trey, and he’s only at 32 percent. The lack of the three-ball hurts you in close games and Butler has had more than their share—the Bulldogs have already played four overtime games, going 1-3.
Before you think that’s just a case of bad luck, keep in mind that all four games were at home and one of them was against DePaul, the only Big East team that’s truly hopeless. Butler allowed the Blue Demons to shoot 58 percent from the floor, an almost incomprehensible display of bad defense.
Maybe going on the road is what the Bulldogs needs, and they started a three-game road swing with an ugly win at Seton Hall. Up next is a game at Marquettetomorrow night, and then a trip to Georgetown. Let’s say Butler splits those two and then comes home and gets wins over Xavier and Creighton. The latter is leading the pack in the Big East, so it’s a tall order, but that also makes Creighton exactly the kind of team that Butler has to be hungry to beat and build their NCAA Tournament resume.
I’ll be on hand for the Butler-Marquette game in Milwaukee tomorrow night, as we take my godson out to see his beloved Bulldogs (he rode Butler to success in our NCAA Tournament pool at the age of six. We start them young in this social circle). He better be the good luck charm before it’s too late.
The Georgetown Hoyas are coming on strong and after Friday night’s win in Cincinnati, the Hoyas have won seven straight and sit in a three-way tie with Syracuse and Marquette atop the Big East conference. Curiously, their rise to prominence has coincided with the suspension of a key player and a fairly tough schedule stretch. Clearly, this is team that needs to be on our radar of potential Final Four picks, so with that in mind let’s do a deeper evaluation of the Georgetown basketball team.
John Thompson III’s team did not start Big East play well. They lost three of the first five league games. One was a 28-point thrashing at the hands of Pitt and the other was a loss at South Florida. The latter loss on January 19 proved to be the nadir of the season, because the Hoyas have not lost since. Their ensuing seven-game win streak includes road scalps at Notre Dame, and again at Cincy. It also includes tough home wins over Louisville and Marquette. It includes another not-so-easy home victory over St. John’s. And the last four games of the streak—starting with the St. John’s win and including Marquette and at Cincy—have come without sophomore forward Greg Whittington, suspended indefinitely for academic reasons.
Whittington was hardly an incidental loss—with a per-game average of 12 points/7 rebounds he was a key piece of a team that’s built on the quality of its frontcourt. Fortunately, sophomore forward Otto Porter, already the team’s best player, has stepped up his game to new heights during the win streak, and Thompson also gets good work out of another sophomore in forward Nate Lubick. Whittington is also a sophomore, so if he gets his act together this entire group—including role player Mikael Hopkins, also a soph—can do a lot of damage over the next year or two.
The backcourt is run by junior Markel Starks, who shoots the ball efficiently from the floor and is a sharp 42 percent from three-point range. He’s not a tremendous playmaker, meaning the Hoyas also have to rely on freshman D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera in this regard. Overall, the lack of a clear playmaking point guard is the one thing that can slow this team down—they shoot the ball fairly well, they’ve got the aforementioned frontcourt talent and they have a clear go-to player in Porter, but Starks has to be able to both score and handle distribution if a big NCAA run is going to be forthcoming.
For the time being though, everything is clicking in Hoya Nation. The win streak started in South Bend back on January 21, where a great defensive and rebounding effort, along with 53 percent shooting from the floor, keyed a 63-47 win. Porter scored 19 rebounds and grabbed nine rebounds. Five days later he delivered a 17/12 and was the best player on the floor against Louisville, the biggest reason Georgetown ground out an ugly 53-51 victory. Porter scored 20 in a rout of Seton Hall, while the entire team played lockdown defense and forced 24 turnovers.
Then came the Whittington suspension and the subsequent 68-56 win over St. John’s. Defense was the key, as the Red Storm were held to 32 percent shooting from the floor and it was Lubick was the day’s star, with a 16/10. Porter was back in gear in February 9 win at Rutgers, posting a 19/14 and the team played its best offensive game of this win streak, shooting 57 percent from the floor. It was a night they needed it, because it was also the one subpar defensive effort, and the final score ended up 69-63.
This past week it was a 63-55 win over Marquette for ESPN’s Monday night audience, with the defense forcing 19 Golden Eagle turnovers and Porter scoring 21 points. Then on Friday, the defense went into lockdown mode again, holding a good Cincinnati team to 32 percent from the floor, with sharpshooting Sean Kilpatrick only going 3-for-13. On the negative side, it was the first time in this seven-game stretch where Georgetown was decisively outrebounded.
Georgetown’s winning formula is clear and sustainable—they’re a very good defensive team, in the tradition of the best teams put out by Thompson’s father in this program’s glory days. The 2013 Hoyas usually hold their own on the glass and more often than not, get an edge here. They have a top dog in Porter who can take over games—he’s averaging 18/8 in this winning streak. And there’s a good secondary scoring option in Starks, who’s averaged 15 ppg over the last seven games.
I don’t know where I’ll ultimately pick Georgetown as far as the NCAA Tournament goes—I don’t have them on a par yet with Miami or Michigan State, teams I feel very confident in as Final Four-caliber teams. Over at the blog Stat Intelligence, blogger Jeff Fogle compared the Hoyas to other teams projected in the 3-4 seed range.
What I will say right now is that what the Hoyas are doing is eminently sustainable—this isn’t a win streak built on a soft schedule, or on an insanely hot shooting streak that you know will cool down. Defense, rebounding and a clear identity on where you want to go with the basketball offensively are virtues that are there every night and it’s why we all need to have the Hoyas on our radar as a possible pick to be in Atlanta for the Final Four come April.
MARYLAND’S BUBBLE BATTLES
The other power conference team on the D.C. Beltway is Maryland and they got a big win last night over Duke. The 83-81 home win realistically kept the Terps’ NCAA Tournament hopes alive, as they are now 18-7 overall and 6-6 in the ACC.
Maryland has been built around the consistency of 7’1” sophomore center Alex Len, who averages 13/8, and was even better last night, with 19 points and 9 rebounds against the soft Duke interior, where no one really helps Mason Plumlee on the rebounding side. The Terps destroyed the Blue Devils on the glass, the single biggest reason they won.
But the second-biggest reason Maryland won is that they got consistent help in the backcourt thanks to Seth Allen, who scored 16. The backcourt is an area where the Terps have been frustrating—albeit understandably, since head coach Mark Turgeon is still dealing with a very young backcourt. They’ll need players like Dez Wells, Nick Faust or perhaps Pe’Shon Howard—suspended for last night’s win for undisclosed reasons—to play consistently down the stretch. Maryland also has a key win over N.C. State, and their final two regular season games are against fellow NCAA contenders North Carolina and Virginia. Last night gave the Terps the chance to play their way into the field.