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Butler Pre-Game: B5Q Grills Mid-Major Madness

Butler's Matt Howard and company are no strangers to close finishes.
Butler's Matt Howard and company are no strangers to close finishes.

In the midst of preparing to meet Butler, Bo Ryan chatted with former assistant and UW-Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter -- you know, just in general. Jeter's Panthers beat Butler in two out of three meetings this season. 

Likewise, I invited some fellow SB Nation bloggers with more insight into the habitants of Hinkle to share their thoughts on Thursday night's Sweet 16 game. Joe Whelan is an indefatigable basketball writer who manages to run Mid-Major Madness in his spare time. UPDATE: Brad Wells, editor at SB Nation Indiana, has joined the party!

B5Q: Brad Stevens continues to prove he is one of the top coaches in the game. It is hard to top a Final Four appearance, but has Stevens' stock risen even higher in your eyes by making the Sweet 16 this year? What will it take to lure Stevens away from Butler?

Joe: His stock has undoubtedly risen, not only as a result of proving last season wasn't a fluke by leading the Bulldogs back to the Sweet 16, but in how he's done it. Butler lost its star in Gordon Hayward, but Stevens still presided over a team that was remarkably efficient during the regular season. Toss in a win over Pittsburgh (this is impressive regardless of how the Big East stumbled in the postseason), and it's another outstanding showing in the tournament by Butler.
Brad: Stevens is viewed as the best coach in college basketball in the state of Indiana, period. Though Matt Painter won Big Ten CotY this season, no one cares what one does in their conference. It's all about winning in the NCAA tournament. Stevens has done that. Even Rick Pitino took time last weekend to say Stevens was the future of coaching in the college ranks. So, yes, I think his stock has risen big time by making the Sweet 16. Remember, back in early February, people thought Butler was dead. They did not look good in conference play, losing three in a row, including a bad one to Youngstown State. For them to go this far without Gordon Hayward is a big deal, and people feel Stevens is the reason why.

As for pulling him away from Butler, it's going to take a boatload of money. Stevens could command the biggest salary of anyone if he wanted to. He is literally THAT hot of a candidate right now. He knows it. Butler cannot keep him forever. Look for him to move to a bigger school in one or two years.

B5Q: The Wisconsin-Butler matchup conjures up images of two great programs, but not necessarily star players. However, there is plenty of star power in this game. Compare Butler's Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard as a duo to Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer.

Joe: The remarkable thing when looking at these two duos is just how similar they are. Neither Mack nor Taylor is a prototypical point guard, though both manage to effectively facilitate the offense. Both lack top-level quickness or explosiveness, but are strong enough off the dribble that they can be classified as elite isolation scorers given their craftiness and ability to absorb contact around the rim. Each has improved their perimeter shooting as well to the point that they are very real threats from the outside.

Leuer and Howard are both below average athletes with high basketball IQs operating inside. Both have progressively improved as perimeter shooter as well, with the Badger big man hitting at a 38% clip from the outside while Howard shoots slightly less often but is even more deadly at 43%. Wisconsin gets the edge between these two duos however as a result of Leuer's bigger frame inside and the propensity that Howard has for getting into foul trouble. Should that be the case in this match-up, Leuer could go off.
Brad: I actually don't know much about Taylor or Leuer other than the two tournament games I saw them play in. One thing that stuck out with those two in just that small sample was how strong they are in terms of fundamental basketball. They looked patient, collected, and not easily rattled. Also, they get to the free throw line. That's how you beat teams in the tourney. Hit your free throws (ask Jacob Pullen). So, in that way, they compare well with Mack and Howard. For me, Mack is the key for Butler. If he plays well, they win.

B5Q: There are some puzzling losses on Butler's record this season. Tell us what the team is doing better or differently since losing to Youngstown State.

Brad: I think a big reason for the improvement is the development of Matt Howard. He wasn't playing well prior to that game. Since then, he has really matured. It doesn't necessarily show up on the stats sheet, but in his ability to make plays late in games, he has dramatically improved.
Joe: The Youngstown State game was really an aberration more than anything, but turned heads more as a result of being Butler's third straight loss at the time. The prior two were overtime contests against second place Milwaukee and third place Valparaiso. As far as the loss to the Penguins specifically, the Bulldogs shot poorly from the floor that night and Matt Howard was in foul trouble, while YSU played well above its head. This game didn't really signal a weak point for Butler, it was simply an off night in a surprisingly competitive Horizon League this year.

B5Q: Are you surprised that the Bulldogs have advanced this deep? How are they dealing with the absence of Blue II?

Joe: It isn't shocking to see Butler back in the Sweet 16. This is a battle-tested team, unfazed by playing in big games on a big stage. Furthermore, they matched up well with both Old Dominion and Pitt in their first two games. These are teams that get a tremendous number of their points on the offensive glass, which just so happens to be something Butler excels at preventing – second chance scoring opportunities. The Bulldogs have the toughness inside to get by against bigger teams.
Brad: Yes, I am pleasantly surprised. I mean, after Notre Dame and Purdue essentially choked in their games prior to the round of 16, knowing that Butler advanced kind of took the sting out. I say this knowing that my co-writers Matt Grecco and Travis Miller are HUGE Irish and Boilermakers fans, respectively. So, I'll take some heat for bashing ND and Purdue. But, having those two teams lose like that was tough. Seeing Butler advance made it less tough.

B5Q: Wisconsin fans may remember guys like Ronald Nored from last season's run, but there are some new faces too. Center Andrew Smith is a lot better, while guys like Nored and Zach Hahn may not have improved as much as people expected. Who has been the most consistent role player for Butler this year?

Joe: Senior guard Shawn Vanzant has flown under the radar this season, but is capable of delivering big performances – such as his 18-point effort in a Horizon League semifinal win over Cleveland State. He shoots over 40% from the outside and is one of the team’s best scoring options in spot-up, pick-and-roll and transition settings, seeing better than a 15% usage rate in all three play types while scoring at a high efficiency rate.
Brad: Tough question because no one has been that consistent all year. Smith has surprised me. He's sort of the forgotten guy in all this. He's made several big plays for Butler of late that have been a bit overshadowed by the play of Howard and Mack. So, I'll say that, recently, Smith has been the most consistent.

B5Q: Do you think the team's adjustment to losing Hayward early was complete by the time the season started, or was there carry over into the season?

Brad: It carried into the season, no question. This team really didn't know what it was until after the Feb. 3rd loss to YSU. Since then, they haven't lost a game. Part of that goes back to Howard maturing.
Joe: There may have been a slight carry over into the season, but it wasn't anything drastic to be sure. The differences in approach without Hayward are evident though as Butler was much more reliant on transition scoring a year ago, while this year, the pick-and-roll set has become a primary means of scoring.

B5Q: Give us one player on each team that you think will be the key to winning the game.

Brad: I think it's the ones you mentioned earlier: Jon Leuer and Shelvin Mack. I won't assume anything with Leuer because I haven't seen him play that much. But, with Butler, Mack must play well. He must drive and make perimeter shots. He must distribute. He must defend better and not commit silly fouls. I wrote back in August of last year that Shelvin Mack was the most important college basketball player in Indiana. Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson fans jumped all over me with that statement, but it's true. Mack playing well is critical to Butler winning.
Joe: This one can be boiled down to the match-up of Howard and Leuer inside. Neither team will be looking to push the pace all that much, so controlling the interior will be vital to the outcome of the game. Whichever player outperforms here, his team stands a very, very good chance to come out on top, particularly if the Badgers get Howard in foul trouble early and keep him off the floor.

Thanks again to Joe and Brad for joining us!