Scouting Report: Butler
The nonconference portion of Vanderbilt's regular season schedule is just about to end. The Commodores can take heart in knowing that their losses to Oregon, Davidson, and Middle Tennessee came against genuinely solid teams that will compete for NCAA berths in the coming months. What will hurt VU is the pair of losses to Marist and Villanova. The win at Xavier compensated for them, but it has to be said that Xavier is struggling right now and might not offer the Dores the high-value poker chip they might have expected before the season began.
Coach Kevin Stallings is left with a sobering realization heading into this final week of non-conference competition: If his team can't beat Butler – a team that has really good odds of being a top-four seed in March Madness this season – it won't have the heft on its resume the Selection Committee is looking for. A win over Butler would give VU the gleaming win that allows the committee to minimize a couple of bad losses. If the Dores don't take out the Bulldogs, however, their portfolio will be noticeably thin. Moreover, since the Southeastern Conference doesn't offer many opportunities for quality wins, Vanderbilt's power ratings won't receive a substantial boost from conference play.
The pressure is on the VU crew in Memorial Gym against the best and most prominent mid-major program of the past four seasons.
Before the 2006-'07 season, Butler was a household name mainly among college basketball fans due to its accomplishments in the late 90s and early 2000s. From 1997 to 2003, the Bulldogs appeared in the NCAA tournament five times, winning three games, including a Sweet 16 berth in 2003.
However, in that 2006-'07 season, Butler made its first strides to becoming the household name among all sports fans. In November of 2006, the Bulldogs beat four ranked teams to climb into the national spotlight. After that year's team reached another Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champions Florida, then-coach Todd Lickliter left for seemingly greener pastures at Iowa.
The next season, Brad Stevens took over Butler. Since then, the former marketer for Eli Lilly has built up the Bulldogs' brand to incredible heights, winning an average of 28 games per season in five full seasons, including two amazing runs to the national championship game in 2010 and 2011.
Since the latter part of the last decade, countless words in various forms of media have focused on "The Butler Way," a five-tenet formula that "demands commitment, denies selfishness, accepts reality, yet seeks improvement everyday while putting the team above self." In basketball parlance, that Way has typically produced ball control teams that can struggle at times with rebounding and field goal percentage, but make up for those weaknesses with strong halfcourt defense and additional points from the three-point line.
However, this year, Butler's way to a 9-2 start has included an unconventional formula for the Stevens era. The Bulldogs have an effective field goal percentage of 51.6, putting them above even the pace set by the two Final Four teams in 2010 and 2011. Butler is rebounding almost 40 percent of its misses, putting it well inside the top 50 in the country, and is almost as good on the defensive glass. So far, Butler's offense has been better than its defense, which struggles to force turnovers and sends opponents to the line too often.
Butler's 2012-13 campaign has featured two signature moments of the young season: its most jaw-dropping shot when Rotnei Clarke beat Marquette at the buzzer during the Maui Invitational, and then the hands-down game of the year in college basketball to this point, when the Bulldogs stunned then-No. 1 Indiana in Indianapolis. Yet, the team comes into Memorial Gym to face Vandy after a much more pedestrian encounter, an eight-point home win against Evansville. The Bulldogs shot nearly 50 percent in that contest and were stellar from the line (85 percent), but they committed 17 turnovers.
Forward – Khyle Marshall – Junior, 6-6, 216 2012-13: 10.9 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game
Given that Marshall showed so much potential as a freshman in Butler's run to the 2011 Final Four, one has to wonder if the Florida native wasn't supposed to be more of a star by now. Nevertheless, the power forward has still been a very solid contributor, shooting 53 percent from the floor and providing a blue-collar presence in and around the paint. Marshall is a workhorse Vanderbilt will have to contend with. It will not be easy to match Marshall's energy and outfight him for 50-50 balls.
Forward – Roosevelt Jones – Sophomore, 6-4, 227; 2012-13: 8.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.3 assists per game
After Butler's thrilling Indiana win, Stevens said that Jones was the "best player on the floor" for his 16 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. That glowing stat line was produced despite the fact that the swingman playmaker fouled out for the most climactic portion of the game. You don't see too many players on top 25 teams who are their team's leading assist man and haven't attempted a three-pointer all year, but that's exactly what Jones is. The sophomore is very likely to pose a matchup problem for the Commodores.
Center – Andrew Smith – Senior, 6-11, 243; 2012-13: 11.5 ppg, 5 rpg
Smith and reserve defensive guard Chase Stigall are the only two players remaining from both of Butler's Final Four teams. Smith is every bit of the ultra-efficient center he's been for the last two years, and has posted 20-point games in two of his last three contests. His likely Vanderbilt matchup is with inconsistent sophomore Josh Henderson. Kevin Stallings will want to give Henderson help whenever he can, but that won't be easy to do, since Butler's team rebounding prowess is so substantial.
Guard – Rotnei Clarke – Senior, 6-0, 184; 2012-13:17.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.3 apg
When Butler's top guard from 2011-12, Chrishawn Hopkins, was dismissed in September for a violation of team rules, it not only forced Clarke to shoulder more of the scoring load, it meant he would effectively be the team's point guard. So far, he has performed both roles very admirably. While the Arkansas transfer is shooting 43 percent overall, his bread-and-butter three-point numbers are up from when he was one of the nation's top gunners as a Razorback.
On one hand, Clarke is recognizable to Stallings, since he played three seasons in the SEC. On the other hand, the players on the Commodores who are familiar with Clarke's game did not get to play very much against him in 2010 and 2011. The 2012 starting five is cashing professional paychecks, and those are the men who could probably defend Clarke better than anyone else. Stallings's knowledge of Clarke's game can only do so much for VU in this contest. The Dores will have to learn what it's like to keep up with Clarke in Butler's structured halfcourt sets, which offer a different challenge from anything Arkansas used to free up Clarke in past seasons.
Guard – Alex Barlow – Sophomore, 5-11, 187; 2012-13: 1.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg
When walk-on Barlow had the ball, and started driving on the deciding possession against Indiana on Dec. 15, the reaction of many a Butler fan was likely something like, "no, no, no, no, YES!" Barlow, who is only starting and receiving significant minutes because of Hopkins' dismissal, was the last person expected to make the winning shot to down the No. 1 team in the country. Barlow is on the court primarily for his defense, as evidenced by the fact that his winning shot against the Hoosiers was one of just 10 two-pointers he's attempted all year.
Guard – Kellen Dunham – Freshman, 6-6, 185; 2012-13: 10.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg
Dunham is Butler's scoring threat immediately off the bench as a freshman, and is averaging more minutes than anyone on the team save Clarke. Vanderbilt would be well advised to keep him deep on the perimeter throughout the game. The freshman is shooting 60 percent inside the arc, and under 30 percent outside it. Given Vandy star Kedren Johnson's size in comparison to Clarke and Barlow, Dunham is the likely matchup for the Commodores' leading scorer.
Forward – Erik Fromm – Junior, 6-8, 223; 2012-13:4.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg
After Butler struggled so mightily on offense a year ago, it was imperative for 2012-13 that the Bulldogs' returning players improved their offensive efficiency. Fromm has done just that, raising his effective field goal percentage by five points versus last year.
Forward – Kameron Woods – Sophomore, 6-8, 200; 2012-13:3.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg
Woods doesn't use a whole lot of Butler's possessions when he's on the floor, but when he does, he's usually making them count. The Louisville native is shooting over 65 percent from the floor, including two-thirds of his twos. He's also coming off his best game of the season, a 10-point, 12-rebound outing against Evansville.
Keys to the Game
1) Three-point shooting. As a whole, Butler's three-point numbers are pretty pedestrian at 33.3 percent. That ranks in the dead-exact middle of Division I. However, if sharpshooter Clarke and his 45-percent accuracy are taken away, that mark becomes a horrific 26.7 percent. Therefore, if Vanderbilt can frustrate Clarke into missing shots and force Butler's other players into outside shots, it could give the Commodores a chance at the upset.
2) Get a max-out performance from Kedren Johnson. So far this season, Butler has struggled against the likes of guards like Marquette's Vander Blue, Illinois's Brandon Paul, Indiana's Victor Oladipo, and Evansville's Colt Ryan, all of whom have a similar size and build to Johnson. Excluding the hard-charging Oladipo, the rest of those aforementioned players have abilities that are similar to the ones possessed by the multitalented Johnson. The Vandy standout may have his best chance to shine whenever the smaller Clarke or Barlow are on him.