Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
11/23/2006 12:58:00 AM
Early Returns: Butler
Butler's Julian Betko bounced back rom a rough start to finish with 15 points.
NEW YORK -- It's an inside joke. Butler coach Todd Lickliter often claims that his insurance premiums have skyrocketed because of the likelihood that senior Julian Betko -- a Slovakian swingman with a penchant for making maddening decisions -- will give him a heart attack. "Julian told me he's in on it with my wife, and they're trying to collect," said Lickliter. "I've even told him I've canceled the policy so he'll quit doing those things, but he won't quit."
So when Lickliter and Betko were standing in the tunnel of Madison Square Garden following the Bulldogs' third straight win over a BCS-conference team -- this one a 56-44 beating of No. 22 Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals -- they weren't celebrating. They were talking about insurance. Betko, who had rebounded from a shaky start to score 13 key second-half points, including 11 straight in one wild stretch, said, "You can get that policy down now, coach."
I'd agree with Betko's assessment. Neither Lickliter nor anyone on the Butler bench seemed at risk of a cardiac arrest Wednesday. In fact, there was a strange level of calm amongst the Bulldogs -- no Cinderella dancing, no looks of surprise on their faces as they limited a previously unbeaten Vols team to 10.3 percent shooting in the second half and advanced to the title game to face Gonzaga. Only the rest of us were surprised; this is, after all, a team that lost three of its top five scorers from 2005-06 (when it went 20-13) and was picked to finish sixth in the Horizon League.
All it's done to defy those low expectations is beat Notre Dame, Indiana and Tennessee in a nine-day stretch to put itself in an improbable position: on the edge of the Top 25. Said junior guard A.J. Graves who scored 15 points on Wednesday, "I guess people call us a mid-major -- so teams we play are always going to be looked at as better than us if they're in a major conference. … But we've made it here [to New York] now, and we've shown people what we can do."
The question is no longer if Butler is good; it's now, how can a team with limited depth and no one over 6-foot-7 on its roster keep on winning? Let's break down the three big reasons:
• First off, they're old. In an age where the nation's powerhouse teams often run with blue-chip 18- and 19-year-olds, the Bulldogs are a bunch of seasoned geezers. I scoured their media guide and wrote down the ages of their top six players: Betko is 23, Brandon Crone is 22, and everyone else -- Graves, Brian Ligon, Drew Streicher and Mike Green -- is 21. That's an average age of 21.5. Tennessee's top six, meanwhile, features three players under 20 (Duke Crews, at 18, and Ramar Smith and Wayne Chism, at 19) and an average age of 19.7. Said Lickliter, "One thing we did think about Tennessee was, they're kind of young, and maybe that would help us -- or you could at least hope it would." Considering that the Vols' sub-20 trio combined for just nine total points, while Butler's over-21 duo combined for 25, I think the experience helped.
• They have a classic "dagger" guy in Graves, who leads the team in scoring at 17.8 ppg. He's a small kid (just 6-1 and 160 pounds) from a small town (Switz City, Ind.: population 311) who makes more than his share of huge plays. He banked in a 3-pointer to sink the Hoosiers last week in Indianapolis, and aided in Wednesday's upset by shooting 3-of-8 from long range for 15 points, and committing just one turnover while playing all 40 minutes.
His dagger against the Vols wasn't a three, though: it was a steal made under the five-minute mark in the second half. After missing a runner, which was rebounded and forced up the floor by UT's Tony Passley, Graves picked Passley's pocket and created a layup for Ligon that put Butler up 49-40 -- and silenced any thought of a burnt orange comeback. The humble Graves called it a "lucky" play. "Our one and two [guards] are supposed to get back after we shoot, so I shouldn't have been going for a steal in the first place," he said. "But I did it anyway, just because I thought I could get the ball."
Said Lickliter, "I think A.J. has been making plays like that his whole life. He stays in the game, and he plays it at a very alert level."
• Finally, they take care of the ball. Tennessee brings the heat as well as any team in the country, and had forced 107 turnovers in its first four games (26.8/game) … yet the Bulldogs committed just 16 and handled the Vols' 1-3-1 press with relative ease. "I thought honestly if we could stay under 15 [turnovers], said Lickliter, we would be in great shape. I thought it would be a very difficult team to play against -- they're averaging almost 30 [forced] turnovers], but I believed in our guys." Tennessee, meanwhile, is still looking for a reliable point guard. The Vols coughed the ball up 23 times ... and didn't face a single possession of full-court press.
Fourth, they control the tempo of the game. Today's young and athletic programs tend to play a run-and-gun fast paced style of game. Therefore it is hard for them to adjust to Butlers shot-clock consuming slow paced style of play. Its not often that a team can brag about being ranked sub-300 in a statistical category, but the Bulldogs at 325 with 60.4 possessions per game have all the right to brag. Especially, when you consider they've allowed an average of under 50 pts. a game while having the strongest schedule (Tulane, Indiana, Notre Dame, Illinois-Springfield, Tennesse) in NCAA basketball. Look for the Butler Bulldogs to win the battle of the Bulldogs on Fri. night. Note, these two programs are the first two mid-majors to start the mid-major hype come tourney time.
As a Gonzaga grad I was disappointed with Friday night's result but was impressed with Butler - decent defense and very patient offense. I eagerly awaited the new rankings to see where both schools would end up. Amazing, thank goodness for March Madness. Gonzaga still is not in the AP top 25 and did not move in the Coaches poll while North Carolina stays at #2. Butler fared even worse - ranked #37 in the AP and #40 in the Coaches poll. Talk about major conference and traditional school bias. Kentucky at 3-2 is ranked higher (not to mention Tennessee - which got blown out by North Carolina). Gonzaga's win over North Carolina was no fluke - watch out Duke on the 21st.
congrats to gonzaga and butler. But as a UNC fan, I'm more disappointed in their play rather than impressed by gonzaga. (Sorry didn't catch any Butler games, but I hear good things)
Roy Williams needs to figure out the rotation problem, and that probably means sitting several players. Going 12 deep is starting to completely ruin the cohesiveness of the team, and its showing on defense. People aren't switching off and playing help defense at all, and that comes from not knowing what the other person is going to do because that player changes every two minutes. Plus it doesn't let anyone have any kinda of rhythm on offense. A little more organization on defense will put a few more hands in the faces of those hot shooters, like Gonzaga's whole team it seemed like, and more contested shots. Gonzaga, you're a good team like always and you're going to do well this year, but I still say I'm more disappointed with UNC rather than impressed by you.
Also, I don't care if Brandon Wright did score 21 points and had 13 rebounds. He still didn't play well. If Tyler is going to be doubled and the best that Brandon can do is throw up horrible shots like he did against Gonzaga for most of the game, that's not productive. 7-16 is not a good percentage when your other big man is double teamed the whole game. 9-10 against Tennessee is much better. Look at McRoberts last year at Duke with Williams. He shot a great percentage and played a great second big man for that team.
The Butler run has me wondering about the Irish. Another 2-point loss (they lead the world in that category) with the ball in their hands at the end, and 30+ point blowouts of their other opponents has me thinking they may have a team much like Butler. We'll see soon...matchups with Maryland and Alablama in the next two weeks.