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November 12, 2009
How Does Butler Do It?

by John Gasaway

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In our book we previewed 73 major-conference teams in-depth. Here’s number 74:

Butler
2009: 26-5 (15-3 Horizon), lost to LSU 75-71, NCAA First Round
In-conference offense: 1.06 points per possession (2nd)
In-conference defense: 0.92 points allowed per possession (1st)

What Butler did well: Defy hoops gravity.
As it happened in real time last year, Butler’s ability to shrug off a minor detail like the departure of four starters was duly noted nationally, but I’m still not sure the magnitude of the achievement here has received the stupefied gawking it merits. A season like this is just not supposed to happen.

Look at it this way. Going into last year the Bulldogs had said goodbye to starters Mike Green, A.J. Graves, Julian Betko, and Drew Streicher, as well as key reserve Pete Campbell. Meaning Stevens returned just 29 percent of his minutes from 2007-08. Frankly to see a number for returning minutes this low somebody has to either win a national championship (North Carolina this season returns 27 percent of its minutes) or get cute with a cell phone (Indiana last year returned four percent of its minutes).

Butler last year was younger than Pitt will be this year. And yet the Bulldogs effectively stayed right where they were performance-wise? Yup!

Someone please tell Stevens he can’t do this
Butler, 2008 vs. 2009, conference games only
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

       PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
2008   1.09    0.94    +0.15
2009   1.06    0.92    +0.14

Last year Butler committed more turnovers than they did in 2008, but the slight drop-off that resulted on offense was offset completely by phenomenal defense. Let’s look at both sides of that equation.

What we learned in 2009: Butler = Notre Dame + defense.
I realize it seems like Luke Harangody’s been at Notre Dame forever now, but an old fogey like me can still hitch up my Depend undergarment long enough to remember when ‘Gody was a freshman in 2006-07. Early that year Mike Brey wasn’t even starting Harangody and consequently my colleague Ken Pomeroy was going nuts. Well, as nuts as the preternaturally calm Ken can go. Set your way-back machine for January of ‘07 and feast your eyes on one peeved Pomeroy:

While I think Mike Brey is one of the great offensive minds in the game, he isn’t getting the most out of his team without putting Luke on the floor for the ten or 12 additional minutes he can get out of him. I know beating this drum every week has become tiresome.

I have it on good authority that that very morning Brey logged on to kenpom.com, slapped his forehead with an “I could have had a high-possession-usage man-beast starting this whole time!” slap, and the rest is efficient history. For 2.5 years now the Irish have been a wonder to behold on offense, albeit a paradoxical one: A decidedly perimeter-oriented team whose featured star is in the paint.

Which brings me to Matt Howard and Butler. An undersized (6-8) post player who never shoots threes, Howard deploys his ‘Gody-esque lunch-pail brand of high efficiency for a team that devoted a league-leading 46 percent of its attempts to threes in Horizon play in 2009. Teams that are this perimeter-oriented aren’t supposed to get points from free throws, but the Bulldogs get them by the truckload because Howard is a regular Tyler Hansbrough when it comes to getting to the line and knocking down the freebies.

Hmmm. Free throws plus the (relative, see above) lack of turnovers that tends to come with shooting a lot of threes. Two good things that usually don’t go together have been brought together in South Bend and Indy.

Harangody and Howard have pretty ostentatiously proven themselves to be great players. But whether your football simile of choice is Denver Broncos running backs in the ‘90s or Texas Tech quarterbacks in the aughts, I am willing to entertain the concurrent possibility that systemic mischief lurks here as well, and that perhaps other coaches playing four-out one-in sets could uncork their own lil’ ‘Godys and Howards if only they’d be open to the possibility. (Cough, cough, Andy Kennedy! Cough, cough, before you bench Murphy Holloway to make room for Reginald Buckner take a good look at your sophomore, cough. Excuse me. That slipped out.)

Note that unlike Notre Dame, however, Butler also plays defense. Last year Horizon opponents made just 39 percent of their twos. Yes, the bottom half of the league is nothing to write home about. Even so, in my experience when the number for opponent 2FG percentage has started with a “3” it has belonged to a Memphis, or a UConn, or a Kansas. If I were Brey I’d have my video guy splice together a Butler game with just BU’s defensive possessions and run it 24/7 for my team.

What’s in store for 2010: Butler was 15-3 in the Horizon last year. Everyone’s back this year. For an essay at the front of the book I looked at situations like this and found that Bulldog fans will be happy in 2010 not because their team is going to just absolutely go through the roof this season but rather because having everyone back is a really good indicator that Butler will again be outstanding, maybe even a game better. Having everyone back is not, however, a perfect indicator. Sometime when you get a chance you should ask Southern Miss about last year.

Meet the Bulldogs
Matt Howard (6-8, 230, Jr.). To again quote my colleague Ken Pomeroy, Howard’s is a drum I have already beaten. See above and also here.

Shelvin Mack (6-3, 215, So.). I saw that look in your eye a few paragraphs up where I said Butler committed more turnovers last year than in the Green-Graves era. You were thinking: Mack, freshman point guard, more turnovers, easy as 1-2-3. You owe Shelvin an apology! His TO rate last year was actually lower than what Green recorded in 2007-08. The somewhat well-known college team in Lexington, Kentucky, was right to make a late and ultimately futile run at Mack when he was in high school in that very same locale. His threes didn’t fall last year but otherwise his numbers as a scoring point guard are not terribly out of place when set alongside those of a Sherron Collins.

Gordon Hayward (6-9, 205, So.). Stevens apparently saw what Matt Painter got from Robbie Hummel at Purdue in 2007-08, went to the nearest Costco, and said, “I’ll take one of those.” It’s all there, from the small-to-medium-town Indiana roots and friendly grocery store clerk demeanor to the beastly number of defensive boards and frequent makes on threes. Come to think of it has anyone ever seen Hummel and Hayward in the same room together?

Willie Veasley (6-3, 205, Sr.). An excellent defender, Veasley turned the ball over a bit too much in 2008-09 but also made an eye-popping 59 percent of his twos against defenses preoccupied with the above three players.

Ronald Nored (6-0, 175, So.). As a freshman Nored really struggled with turnovers in a role kind of like that played by fellow freshman Stu Douglass last year at Michigan. Both sophomores are nominal point guards playing alongside featured scorers who are also assist machines: Mack in Nored’s case, Manny Harris in Douglass’s.

Zach Hahn (6-1, 175, Jr.). Hahn is a three-point specialist who averaged 15 minutes a game off the bench last year. When he and Hayward are in the game at the same time the amount of perimeter accuracy that Stevens has on the floor is almost unfair.

Andrew Smith (6-11, 240, Fr.). With Smith Stevens now at least has the option to “go big” should the situation require it.

Prospectus says: Maybe it’s the coach, the players, systemic mischief, or perhaps even the storied rafters at Hinkle, those venerable columns and beams that saw Martinsville win a state title against Muncie Central thanks in part to a junior named John Wooden. All I know is Butler has officially reached Gonzaga Midwest status. All that’s missing is the floppy hair.

John also plugs his book like Don Draper on Twitter, only with no smoking or poorly-lit flashbacks: @johngasaway.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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