Marquette-Butler preview and top five storylines

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational- Butler vs Marquette

Marquette is now 40 minutes from its third straight Sweet 16 appearance, and standing in its way is the sixth-seeded Butler Bulldogs, who knocked off Bucknell on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.

It’s a rematch of the Maui Invitational’s opening round, when Butler shooting guard Rotnei Clarke hit arguably the shot of the year, resulting in a 72-71 win for Brad Stevens’ group. Back in November we wrote up a scouting report on the Bulldogs. It’s more or less the same from then, so check it out for write-ups on the individuals and bigger picture statistics.

The Golden Eagles will need to execute far better than they did on Thursday, narrowly escaping in a 59-58 win over Davidson. Buzz Williams’ group shot a paltry 34 percent and needed three late 3-pointers and a Vander Blue layup to avoid an embarrassing upset.

Davidson’s top-100 defense shouldn’t have given Marquette as much trouble as it did, and if the Golden Eagles aren’t better than Steven’s stout defensive group will be far less forgiving.

The Bulldogs’ primarily man-to-man defense (97.2 percent of the time) ranked in the top-50 nationally, according to KenPom. Their individual numbers weren’t stellar–only forward Roosevelt Jones and guard Erik Frohm allowed less than 0.71 points per possession–but, as cliche as it sounds, Stevens gets his players to defend as a group and make sound decisions.

And of the categories Steven’s group succeeds in, none is more important than its offensive rebounding percentage allowed. Opponents grab just 26 percent of their misses, the ninth best mark in the country. On Thursday Bucknell, a below-average offensive rebounding team, corralled just four offensive rebounds on 39 missing field goals.

Davidson entered Thursday’s tilt as a top-50 defense in terms of allowing offensive rebounds, and Marquette managed 14 offensive rebounds on 38 misses, resulting in 11 second-chance points. Andrew Smith, Kameron Woods and Khyle Marshall hit glass well, making for a tough matchup inside for the Golden Eagles.

One area Marquette can and should exploit is in the frontcourt. For as good as the senior Clarke and 6-foot-6 freshman Kellen Dunham are offensively, they both struggle on the defensive end. Clarke ranks in the 45h percentile in points per possession defense, and Dunham isn’t much better at 0.794 PPP (60th).

Vander Blue had his first breakout performance against the Bulldogs in November, scoring 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting and 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. The junior from Madison struggled until the final minutes against Davidson, and wound up scoring 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting. With points sure to be hard to come by inside, Blue’s scoring will be the X-factor tonight, even though he’s Marquette’s leading scorer.

On top of Todd Mayo returning for tonight’s game–he was suspended for academic reasons the first semester, and Jake Thomas played 18 minutes–the other significant difference for Marquette is fifth-year senior Chris Otule’s recent success. He played just 12 minutes against the Bulldogs in November, scoring three points and grabbing one rebound as essentially a non-factor.

They’ll see a different center tonight. Otule has averaged 6.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in 19.5 minutes the last 11 games, peaking against Davidson with his first career double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks). What he’s able to do, mainly limiting Smith on both ends, will go a long way toward deciding tonight’s victor.

Butler is 7-4 after a 20-4 start, but don’t forget the Bulldogs have wins over Indiana, Gonzaga, Temple and La Salle this year.

On to the five storylines:

1. Brad Stevens vs. Buzz Williams

No, the top storyline tonight is not revenge for Clarke’s buzzer-beater. It was one shot in November that made no difference on either team’s seeding when push came to shove. The biggest story tonight is a matchup between two of the best young coaches in college basketball.

Williams is looking to clinch his third straight Sweet 16 appearance, while Stevens is back in the NCAA Tournament after missing out last year, on the heels of back-to-back NCAA Championship runner-up finishes.

Without a true star on either team, it’s a good bet tonight comes down to which coach has planned better and which can make the in-game adjustments. It will be a game of cat and mouse, with the coach doing the chasing coming out on top.

2. Does Clarke stay cold or come out firing?

Like Nik Cochran on Thursday, Marquette will square off against one of the top 3-point shooters in the country. He shot just 2-of-8 from beyond the arc against Bucknell, his third-worst performance in 2013. Since a 6-of-12 effort against Dayton, Clarke has gone just 6-of-23 from beyond the arc his last three games, all against Tournament teams (La Salle, St. Louis, Bucknell).

He’s bound to heat up at some point, as his scoring numbers haven’t dipped despite the outside failures. If that comes against Marquette, it could spell doom for the Golden Eagles.

3. Jamil Wilson: A second chance

We wrote about this yesterday, but tonight is as much about Wilson’s redemption as it is Marquette getting back at Clarke’s heroics.

He went scoreless in Maui against the Bulldogs, and was the final straw in Williams sending his most talented player to the bench. Khyle Marshall went off against Marquette on the island (24 points, 11-of-15 FG, 9 rebounds) and Wilson must improve defensively to avoid easy baskets–Butler had 46 points in the paint in November.

4. Andrew Smith’s post touches

No one in tonight’s game has more experience than Smith. The senior has appeared in two national championship games and seven other NCAA Tournament games, averaging 6.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in the Bulldogs’ 2011 run to Indianapolis.

He’s March-made, and in Butler’s last six games has upped his averages to 12.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He makes the most of his 27 minutes per game, and he’s been on and succeeded on the country’s biggest stage.

Chris Otule and Davante Gardner were crucial against Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks in the post on Thursday, but Smith has the potential to do even more damage if and when Stevens sets him up to succeed.

5. When does Marquette’s 3-point shooting catch up to it?

We’d be remiss not to bring this point up again (and for that matter, until the Golden Eagles lose). Marquette is the worst 3-point shooting team left in the NCAA Tournament, and its 4-of-15 performance against Davidson only lowered that average. In fact, the Golden Eagles were 1-of-12 before the final 90 seconds, when they connected on three deep-balls to set up Vander Blue’s heroics.

If Marquette trails late, both history and the law of averages say the Golden Eagles won’t have the same success coming back. Playing against a Brad Stevens defense in the NCAA Tournament only further solidifies that truth. Simply put, if Marquette isn’t hitting their 3-pointers tonight, Butler wins.

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