Just because it's snowing outside doesn't mean that there isn't going to be some awesome basketball played tonight. Butler comes to the Gentile Center tonight to take on undefeated Loyola in the Horizon League opener. I'll be live-blogging the game, but before that I wanted to get some insights about the Bulldogs. Damon Lewis of the new Butler blog Victory Firelight was happy to help out. You can read his thoughts about the Bulldogs and a host of issues that could impact the game after the jump.
CCB - Obviously everyone wants to know - what happened against Evansville? Is there something opponents can learn from that game about attacking Butler?
VF - Evansville purposely employed a small lineup against Butler to create mismatches against the Bulldogs defense. Right now Matt Howard is Butler's only legitimate post defender, and he was in foul trouble -- limiting him to just 27 minutes in the game. Brad Stevens felt it made more sense to try and match Evansville's small lineup with one of his own, but to do so he used players that some would argue have no business playing more than 5-to-10 minutes per game. Also, Evansville's offensive sets were well executed and neutralized Butler's ability to play solid, on-ball defense. The Purple Aces run a motion offense that never quits, and they constantly ran players off screens to get their players easy shots that didn't have to be created 1-on-1.
So what can opponents learn? Well, you can go small against Butler and be effective if you execute well on offense. If you can get Butler's bigs -- mainly Howard -- off the floor and force them to go small, you'll be dealing with some players who currently do not defend or score with any consistency, sans Shelvin Mack. Also, if you make them defend long possessions, a breakdown is almost bound to happen somewhere.
All this talk about smaller lineups and deliberate offensive sets has me understandably worried about tonight's game.
CCB - How important is the absence of Ronald Nored?
VF - Honestly, I think it's being slightly overstated. All of Butler's guard positions are interchangeable, and most of the players filling those positions are ball-handlers. In terms of measurables, Nored's absence shouldn't have a major impact, but he does provide some intangibles (leadership, smarts) that every team needs. His defensive prowess is well documented but the Bulldogs didn't have his services against Siena and they held Clarence Jackson to eight points en route to a convincing road victory over the Saints.
CCB - It seems like Butler has a number of talented younger players, but Brad Stevens has been reluctant to give all of them a ton of minutes, specifically Khyle Marshall and Chrishawn Hopkins. Will we see more of them as the season goes on?
If they learn how to defend better, then yes, they'll see more time on the court. Brad Stevens wants to win with defense, and that was ultimately the reason for their loss against Evansville as Stevens never found the right combination to keep the Aces from scoring. Marshall has so much potential it may as well be tattooed on his forehead. In my Take Two series on Victory Firelight, I've referenced a million times how "things happen" when Marshall is on the floor. For better or worse, he makes things happen, but right now the positives aren't clearly outweighing the negatives. Hopkins is simply stuck behind a glut of experienced guards, but is showing maturity while on the floor. And don't forget about Erik Fromm, who in many ways reminds me of a young Walt Gibler (with a better 3-point stroke).
CCB - Butler has the ability to put out a pretty imposing front line with Andrew Smith and Matt Howard. The stats seem to suggest that Howard is playing fantastic basketball right now. Have you seen the same things? What's up with Smith? How will they match-up with Loyola's forward rotation?
VF - Howard truly is playing great basketball right now, but is probably most valuable to the Bulldogs on the defensive end where he directs an awful lot of traffic. When he's not on the floor -- due to fouls or otherwise -- it shows. I believe the only thing Andrew Smith is truly lacking at this point is self-confidence. He's getting there, but it's like you can almost see that he's still unsure if he really belongs. Howard and Smith at the "four" and "five" is a lineup that Stevens toyed with early last season but had little success. This year, it's proven to be more effective with Howard showing some comfort at the power forward position, making a few 3-pointers and displaying an ability to put the ball on the floor 18-feet from the basket. Most times, however, you'll see Garrett Butcher or Khyle Marshall at power forward paired with either Howard or Smith at center. Given the Evansville result, I think how Butler chooses to match-up with Loyola's forwards will have a huge bearing on the outcome. If Butler goes big, in my opinion, they win.
CCB - How do you stop Shelvin Mack? It seems like he's struggled the past two games against Siena and Evansville.
VF - I really don't want this to come off as arrogant, but only Shelvin Mack can stop Shelvin Mack. What makes him a treat to watch is his ability to score in every way imaginable. Against Siena, everyone was making shots around him so he did a little more facilitating with Nored out of the game. The evidence is in the fact that he didn't attempt a single free throw. Against Evansville, he had to sit for an extended period of time in the first half due to foul trouble. In the second half he came out pressing, trying to make up for lost time and it showed. I truly feel his performances against Louisville and Ball State are much closer to what fans can expect from him most nights this season.