The upstart Butler Bulldogs (15-3) are sputtering into Philadelphia Tuesday night after recording back-to-back losses to Seton Hall and DePaul. Their road trip to Finneran Pavilion to face the Villanova Wildcats (14-3) holds elevated importance for several reasons. Lavall Jordan’s squad is in desperate need of a win to stop the tailspin of defeats that recently have begun to plague the program and an opportunity against a top-10 conference foe is the perfect chance to not only stem the tide but also boost their resume. If there is any positive spin on the Bulldogs sudden lack of production and results, it’s that setbacks to the Pirates and Blue Demons are respectable given their track records this season and potential to wreak havoc in the NCAA Tournament.
They will have their hands full against the home Wildcats, who have rattled off four-straight conference wins after losing a road game to Markus Howard and Marquette. Aside from their most recent defeat, Villanova has been overpowered only on the season by national contenders Ohio State and Baylor. Jay Wright has this team primed again as an offensive juggernaut capable of taking down any program in the nation, as evidenced by their win over #1 Kansas several weeks ago. The potential pitfalls for Villanova occur on the defensive side of the ball, where they have had difficulty blowing out opponents. Of their last seven wins, six have come by eight points or less. A miscue from this otherwise experienced team could have had many in the college basketball world talking about what’s missing from the program’s characteristic success over the last decade.
How does each team win this game?
The Bulldogs have been one of the premier defensive teams in the nation this season. Allowing a mere 57.1 PPG, Butler has only permitted three teams (Stanford, Seton Hall and DePaul) to score more than 65 points in a game. It’s a large reason why they’ve only suffered a loss of more than 10 points just once. They do an excellent job of trailing shooters on their cuts and running them off of the perimeter. So well in fact that teams are shooting an abysmal 5.9-21.1 (27.9% – 10th nationally) from the 3-point line against this team – a facet of offense that Villanova relies on particularly heavily. Butler needs to force the Wildcats to play inside the arc and an old-school game.
Offensively, Butler plays with a slower tempo and does not get a ton of possessions to outgun opponents. However, they are particularly efficient and attack the rim any chance they can get. Led by Kamar Baldwin’s 15.1 PPG, the Bulldogs backcourt needs to make it a priority to run sets through the pick-and-roll and get inside against the very porous internal defense of Villanova (2-pt FG% 50.6 – 251st). Specifically, the Wildcats provide generous spacing for the ball handler coming off of screens and leave their post defender on an island – which plays right into the hands of Butler’s offensive tendencies. Sean McDermott, Jordan Tucker and Aaron Thompson can all be benefactors of this offensive strategy given their natural tendencies and versatility scoring the ball in the half-court. Look for Butler to regain some of their rhythm in this game and put forth a strong effort.
The Wildcats have been a very potent and dynamic offensive team over the last decade and this year’s team is no different. This season’s squad has five players averaging over 10 PPG and five with at least one three-pointer made per game (Saddiq Bey, Cole Swider, Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels & Justin Moore). The diverse angles this team can attack opponents with makes them a very difficult squad to game plan for. Butler will undoubtedly try to force Villanova’s guards and forwards off of the perimeter, given they rely heavily on the 3-pointer (27.6 3PA/G – nearly 50% of their shot attempts). However, there is a chink in the Bulldogs armor that can allow Villanova to execute their normal game plan and succeed. Once ball handlers move inside the perimeter, Butler does an exceptional job collapsing their defense to contest shots at the rim. In doing so, they abandon any shooters left in the corners and give up the lower percentage shot. Villanova will relish these opportunities to hit open 3-pointers from the corner and/or take chances to swing the ball further up the arc and find another open shooter. Mild success for the Wildcats from the perimeter in this game could spell doom for the Bulldogs.
Defensively, Villanova plays a physical brand of basketball. Where Butler will run their offense through Kamar Baldwin and the pick-and-roll, the Wildcats have to take advantage of their opportunities and tendencies to trap ball-handlers in precarious positions of the half-court. Specifically, Butler had difficulty against Seton Hall when the ball carrier attempted to move along the baseline, on corner in-bounds passes or near the half-court line. Once in one of these positions, Butler took unnecessary risks finding their outlet pass and frequently turned the ball over.
Prediction: Butler 66, Villanova 72