As has been widely discussed, Butler has had some recent success in the month of March. However, as CBS-proclaimed college basketball "expert" Charles Barkley might say, "Gordon Hayward (or does he say 'Haywood'?), Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard ain't walkin' through that door this year". Therefore, this young team is, fairly or not, expected to live up to the recent legacy of their predecessors. They will undoubtedly fall well short of that standard, but I enjoy seeing them develop and to see what they are able to achieve on their own.
With the calendar turned to March, this year's Butler team is, on paper, an underdog. They entered this game as the poorest-seeded team left in the tournament. However, in person, it becomes readily apparent that the crowd at the 2012 Horizon League tournament consists exclusively of (i) Butler fans or (ii) those ready to see the Butler run come to an end. This is not surprising. While the rest of the nation may largely think fondly of Butler as America's Underdog, the rest of the Horizon League views them as something akin to the New York Yankees.
Even with the relative inexperience of the players on the roster, there is an extra energy in the gym when Brad Stevens roams the sideline, and--at least to me--that's heightened even further when the Bulldogs don their road black jerseys. There has been much magic in those jerseys over the past 24 months, and I come to believe that just about anything is possible when I see them.
On the other end of the court, Rob Jeter's Milwaukee Panthers have been one of the Bulldogs' most traditionally competitive rivals. Like Butler, Milwaukee thrives on physical, defensive-oriented play. When either of these teams is in action, you'll hear descriptions like "gritty", "offensively challenged", and "ugly". When these teams play each other, you expect to witness a battle.
Both coaches like to talk about the importance of getting "50/50 balls", or loose balls that are obtained by the more aggressive competitor. These teams pride themselves on dominating this category, so an interested observer can often predict the winner of Milwaukee-Butler games by ignoring the baskets entirely and simply looking at who grabs the most 50/50 balls.
Butler came out of the starting gate with great energy, and provided evidence that they were going to win the battle of the 50/50 balls. Players from both teams spent the first several minutes of the game diving on the floor but the Bulldogs ended up with the advantage nearly every time. The other area in which aggressiveness is seen statistically is in the rebounding margin, and Butler controlled the boards throughout the early portion of the game as well. This was particularly noteworthy, as Milwaukee outrebounded the Bulldogs in both of their prior meetings.
As expected, defense was on display in the first half. Both teams struggled to score, but Butler got Roosevelt Jones opportunities inside for two baskets, both as a result of offensive rebounds, then Andrew Smith got a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Ronald Nored. That 6-0 lead covered the first six minutes of the game, which was finally answered by Milwaukee's Kaylon Williams with a long, banked-in three-pointer.
The game remained competitive and low-scoring throughout the half. The Panthers cut the lead to one late in the half on a Tony Meier three-pointer. I have seen Meier make many superhoops over the years, and always marvel at how few of those shots even graze the rim - his is truly a beautiful shot.
With the score at 18-17, Khyle Marshall took over. In past years, Butler changed momentum in a game through a flurry of three-pointers. This year, that skill is in very limited display, so the Bulldogs seem now to shift momentum by simply lobbing the ball toward the basket and relying on their athleticism to catch it and slam it through the hoop. I've heard this referred to as bizarro-Butler, and that's a very apt description. An alley-oop from Nored and an alley-oop from Chrishawn Hopkins, both to Marshall, got the Butler fans in full voice and carried them to a 22-18 halftime lead.
In the second half, Butler again came out the aggressor, forcing four turnovers in the midst of a 9-0 run to open the half. Milwaukee responded with an 8-2 run of its own, and it was then alley-oop time yet again, this time Jones was the sender of the pass to Marshall. That keyed an 11-0 Butler run, which was capped by a three-pointer from Chase Stigall (the first Butler field goal outside the paint in the entire game to that point) and a runner in the lane from Jones, who got T'd up immediately thereafter because of a quick, unsportsmanlike comment to his former AAU-teammate Shaquille Boga of Milwaukee. Stevens immediately sent Jones to the bench accompanied by some rather quick, unsportsmanlike comments of his own to his young player, and the message was emphasized over the next few minutes by the Butler assistant coaches.
From that point forward, the lead never slipped below 13. For the young Dawgs, this was almost certainly their best effort of the year, at a time in which they must be at their best. They did indeed dominate the 50/50 balls and also dominated the rebounding battle by a 42-23 count. To achieve anything in March close to those who came before them, these will need to be the first steps in a very long and difficult journey. In just 22 hours, they'll need to replicate this effort against the home standing conference champions, but for a few moments, it was okay for the Butler band to celebrate this victory. This game may have been viewed as ugly and gritty to many, but for the many Butler fans in attendance, there was much beauty to behold.
BUTLER 71, MILWAUKEE 49 03/02/2012
BUTLER 20-13 (11-7) -- K. Marshall 8-13 1-5 17; R. Jones 8-11 1-2 17; R. Nored 1-7 3-5 5; C. Hopkins 2-6 3-4 7; C. Stigall 2-5 0-0 6; A. Smith 4-8 0-0 8; E. Fromm 2-4 0-0 4; J. Aldridge 0-1 2-2 2; K. Woods 1-1 0-0 2; G. Butcher 0-1 1-2 1; A. Barlow 1-1 0-0 2; E. Kampen 0-0 0-0 0; E. Kampen 0-0 0-0 0; A. Smeathers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-58 11-20 71. MILWAUKEE 20-13 (11-7) -- K. Williams 3-9 1-3 8; J. Haarsma 3-11 1-4 9; R. Allen 2-5 4-6 8; P. Gulley 1-7 1-1 3; T. Meier 2-6 3-4 8; K. Kelm 2-4 1-2 6; S. Boga 2-4 0-0 5; R. Haggerty 0-1 2-2 2; E. Richard 0-0 0-0 0; D. Harris 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-47 13-22 49.
Three-point goals: BUTL 2-12 (R. Nored 0-4; C. Stigall 2-5; A. Smith 0-1; E. Fromm 0-1; C. Hopkins 0-1), MILW 6-23 (T. Meier 1-5; R. Haggerty 0-1; K. Williams 1-4; J. Haarsma 2-6; K. Kelm 1-2; R. Allen 0-1; S. Boga 1-1; P. Gulley 0-3); Rebounds: BUTL 42 (K. Marshall 10), MILW 23 (J. Haarsma 6); Assists: BUTL 11 (R. Nored 6), MILW 7 (K. Williams 3); Total Fouls -- BUTL 19, MILW 18; Fouled Out: BUTL-None; MILW-None.