Match-up: 3 Butler Bulldogsvs. 6
TV: CBS (Stream online here)/ /Dana Jacobson) (
Date and Time: Saturday 3/21, 9:40pm EST
Location: CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Their victory over 11 seed Texas in the Round of 64 was a low-scoring affair, but the Bulldogs finished strong offensively, largely behind a big Kellen Dunham three to extend their lead to 5 with under two minutes remaining and plenty of conversions from the free throw line. That they did so with leading scorer Roosevelt Jones hobbled with an injured knee in the second half made it all the more impressive.
The Bulldogs' best RPI victory this season was over North Carolina, who of course the Irish have also topped twice. They split a pair against Providence, another common opponent with Notre Dame, dropped both their games against Villanova, and were able to win just one of three against their other top 30 RPI opponents Georgetown and Xavier.
Overall, I was surprised by their resume, seemingly lacking very many key victories, but they have been able to avoid the bad loss most of the season. Their two worst losses, and the only two outside the RPI top 50, were to Indiana (61) and Tennessee (97). They also swept all of their games against the bottom half of the conference, which includes 44th-ranked St. John's.
The tournament's Selection Committee rated Butler as the 23th best team in the field, which matched the KenPom rankings almost exactly before their Round of 64 win over Texas. After that (in light of Texas' very high ranking in KenPom), the Bulldogs moved up to 17th, just 4 spots below the Irish. They come in at 31st overall in the RPI.
One thing that jumps off the page about these Bulldogs is that, despite not having a single player listed over 6'9", they are one of best rebounding teams in the country, especially on the defensive end. That said, they were dramatically out-rebounded by the Longhorns, but that is certainly far more respectable than Notre Dame getting dominated on the boards against Northeastern.
Also, despite not being very good shooters at the line (just 68%), Butler gets to the line a lot, helping the overall offensive efficiency of a team that is not really strong from anywhere on the court. The Irish are one of the best teams in the country at keeping teams off the line, so that will likely be a key game-within-the-game in this one. Though Notre Dame is far stringier in terms of turning the ball over, Butler is still fairly strong in this category and forces more turnovers than the Irish.
In general, not much jumps out at you offensively with these Bulldogs. They ply their trade on the defensive end (8th in KenPom), relatively strong at forcing turnovers, not allowing hardly any second-chance points, and just generally playing sound, solid, tenacious defense. This is a clash of opposing strengths and weaknesses in this one, which makes it really difficult to predict which side of things will win out or, perhaps, who can play the opponents' game just enough down the stretch to come out on top.
Alex Barlow - G - 5-11/187
Kellen Dunham - G - 6-6/185
Roosevelt Jones - F - 6-4/227
Andrew Chrabascz - F - 6-7/225
Kameron Woods - F - 6-9/200
Kelan Martin - F - 6-6/215
Tyler Wideman - F - 6-8/245
Austin Etherington - F - 6-6/215
Former walk-on Barlow doesn't leave the floor often for the Bulldogs. Athletically, he is just a mismatch that the Irish, and in particular Demetrius Jackson, simply have to exploit in this one. He is undersized and physically outmatched by the Notre Dame backcourt, so it's easy to see the former McDonald's All-American Jackson especially have a showcase game with that match-up. Barlow also turns it over an alarming amount (23% turnover rate), something with which the pesky Jackson should also have some success.
Dunham, the Bulldogs' only double-digit scorer against Texas with 20, has the length to match up with Jerian Grant (presumably who Chris Holtmann will put Dunham on defensively) and is an efficient scorer in his own right. He doesn't create too much for his teammates or really crash the boards, so keeping him from going off is going to be the sole focus for either Grant or Steve Vasturia.
Jones is the leading scorer for Butler on the season but is questionable with a knee injury sustained against Texas. It appears as though he is expected to go, but it is unclear how much he might be limited physically on Saturday. His efforts to come back on Thursday did not look good. It would be a shame to see him less than 100% for such a big match-up.
The rest of Butler's contributors are all forwards, none of them terribly big nor real threats from outside. That said, there is a wave of them, led by Chrabascz, who averages 11 points a game. Safe to say, Pat Connaughton, Bonzie Colson, and Zach Auguste will not be able to take many plays off, because this Bulldog front line is deep and relentless, especially on the defensive end.
In this one, it's one team's great offense vs. the other's great defense. In games against top 10 offensive opponents, Butler has allowed .87 (UNC), 1.08 (IU), 1.05 (Nova), and 1.19 (Nova) points per possession. In games against top 10 opposing defenses, Notre Dame has scored 1.04 (UVA) and 1.15 (Louisville) points per possession. Because of both team's slow tempo, it's hard to see a very high-scoring game, but it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine the Irish having a relatively efficient game.
The turnover battle is one to watch here, as is usually the case, as Butler defeated Texas largely because they forced an excellent 25% turnover rate on the Longhorns while only turning it over 8% of the time themselves. The story was similar for the Irish (11%) against Northeastern (26%). I think winning this battle is a bigger key to Butler's success, as Notre Dame has the efficiency edge when shots actually go up in the air.
Butler's success will have a lot to do with Roosevelt Jones' availability and effectiveness. The junior creates a lot on the offensive end, so without him, it is easy to see the Bulldog offense stagnate and get into trouble if Barlow needs to take over or the Irish backcourt can focus its energies on Kellen Dunham. If Jones is available, however, the only 3-point threats for Butler (Barlow and Dunham) are allowed to work off the ball and spread the floor while Jones is left to create and get shots for his shooters and post men.
I see a tight one here and one that I think is likely in Notre Dame's favor if one of Butler's most important players is unable to go. That said, with Jones, I can't help but see two programs with opposite recent histories in March. That history seemed to manifest itself on Thursday, as Butler coolly closed out the Longhorns while the Irish nearly choked away a double-digit lead against Northeastern. I need to see Notre Dame earn a victory down the stretch in this tournament before I start picking them to do so.
I've said for awhile now that the Irish will either lose in the Round of 32 or make it to the Elite 8, and I still believe that. If they can get a big win under their belts here against Butler, I think that can get a huge monkey off this program's back and will propel them past Kansas, Wichita State, or Indiana. If not, then it's just the same old Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. I hope that's not the case, but I sure need to see it first before I start believing it.
Notre Dame 71
Notre Dame 64