Saturday night’s contest between Marquette and Butler was one of the most compelling matchups of the NCAA tournament thus far, not just because it was a thrilling game that went down to the very last possession, but because it was a contest between two contrasting styles with Marquette’s physicality versus Butler’s precise execution.
Marquette survived to move on to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, but for Butler, the ramifications may last beyond the game.
Brad Stevens’ club has been college basketball’s mid-major darling for the last six years, playing in five NCAA tournaments and making back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2011.
The challenge changes next year, though, as Butler, Xavier, and Creighton will join DePaul, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Villanova and Marquette in the new incarnation of Big East.
If you watched Saturday’s game, you know Marquette’s strategy, especially down the stretch, was to attack the rim at every opportunity and capitalize on the size and athleticism of their guards.
“[Butler is] not a shot-blocking team,” Marquette guard Vander Blue told Andy Katz following the game. “You have to get to the basket and if you do, you can be successful.”
That strategy was effective down the stretch and even forced Butler into a rare defensive breakdown in the game’s final moments, when they rotated off a 3-point shooter in the strong side corner, consequently allowing a kick-out three that tied the game.
For Brad Stevens, the question now becomes whether this loss exposed flaws in his team’s personnel that will need to be addressed before they’re capable of succeeding or maximizing their potential in the Big East?
Virtually every player on Butler’s roster was recruited to thrive in the Horizon League, not the Atlantic 10 (where they competed this season), never mind the Big East. Ironically, Butler’s frontcourt held up pretty well on Saturday night. They battled Marquette essentially to a stalemate on the glass, both in terms of rebounding percentage and total rebounds, and even blocked eight shots to Marquette’s four.
It was actually in the backcourt where Marquette found its biggest advantage, and specifically in Butler’s struggle to keep them out of the paint off the dribble. Some of that had to do with athleticism, but a good portion of it was also about sheer strength. Marquette’s top three guards all weighed more than 200 pounds, whereas Butler didn’t have one that topped 187 pounds. Fortunately for Butler fans, this is an issue that Stevens and his staff appear to have already recognized gauging from their recent recruiting efforts.
Freshman guard Kellen Dunham, who will replace Rotnei Clarke as the team’s primary 3-point weapon next season as a sophomore, has great size in the backcourt at 6-foot-6. Incoming freshman Elijah Brown (Santa Ana, Calif./ Mater Dei) is a 6-foot-4 combo-guard. While both of those young guards have terrific size, they’ll need to be aggressive in the weight room in order to add strength to compete with the others in the Conference. Rene Castro is another incoming guard and is well built at 6-foot-1 and close to 190 pounds.
Thanks to the presence of Andrew Smith up front, Butler held its own in the middle Saturday. With the 6-foot-11 big man graduating this spring and neither of its incoming big men, Nolan Berry nor Andrew Chrabascz, being especially explosive by Big East standards, you may see Butler look to add a shot-blocking presence as part of their 2014 class.
A few things are for certain. First, there is no denying Stevens’ strategic intelligence, both on the floor as well as in recruiting. All indications are that even before he knew he was going to the Big East, he was already beginning to address his team’s size and physicality in the backcourt. Second, while they’ll be relatively young backcourt and still missing a true shot-blocker next season, they’ll continue to hang their hat defensively on their ability to prevent straight line drives and get precise rotations from the weakside in order to help on dribble penetration without leaving three-point shooters.
Ultimately, what you’re likely to see is a Butler squad that continues to evolve and become one of the true high-major programs in the country while also continuing to show the same execution and discipline on both ends of the floor, maybe just with some added size and length.