No matter how well a college men’s basketball team may play during its regular season, should it make the NCAA Division I Tournament, it will ultimately fall into one of two categories.
The ‘teams that showed up’ category, or the ‘teams that folded like a card table’ category.
In its last few tournament appearances, Butler has often placed itself in the former group. Whether it is by statistical dominance, sheer luck or a mix of both, Butler coach Brad Stevens knows how to field a tough team to oust from the tournament.
And Stevens’ players know how to show up during the Big Dance.
Of course, there’s always some luck involved when any team experiences a deep tournament run.
But in Butler’s case, the statistics offer an intriguing look into why Butler’s recent teams have seen NCAA tournament success.
Let’s take a look back to the 2009-10 season, during which Butler put itself on the map with a run to the National Championship Game.
The Bulldogs averaged a little more than 70 points per game on nearly 46 percent shooting during the regular season. They turned the ball over less than and outrebounded their opponents through the campaign.
When that team got to the tournament—as some pundits may have predicted—it just wasn’t as statistically strong.
Butler was playing against consistently tougher competition than it saw in the Horizon League. The Bulldogs’ tournament competitors shot better against Butler than Butler’s regular-season opponents did.
On the other side of the ball, Butler scored nearly 10 points less per game during the tournament than they did in the regular season. Every key offensive statistic went the wrong way, numerically, for Butler during the tournament.
And yet, the Bulldogs won five tournament games and lost their sixth, the National Championship contest against Duke, by two points.
Flash forward to the 2010-11 season. The team wasn’t exactly the same, but the script was, statistically.
Butler’s shooting from the field dropped from 44.6 percent shots made in the regular season to 37.3 percent made in the tournament. Points per game fell by nearly nine.
The Bulldogs’ opponents rebounded better in the tournament than Butler’s regular-season foes. If you take out the offensively putrid National Championship game against Connecticut, the same could have been said for shots made against Butler.
But, again, Butler racked up five tournament victories before falling shy of a sixth.
This doesn’t make any sense, especially if you’re a statistical guru. Granted, Stevens is one himself and he isn’t complaining.
But through a single game in this season’s tournament, the script of Butler being statistically worse in the tournament versus the regular season is playing out once again.
And Butler is 1-0, preparing for a game against Marquette tonight.
There are a few reasons for Butler’s success in spite of everything the stats suggest.
The first actually lies in the statistics and is the only one I haven’t mentioned yet: opponents’ points per game.
While Butler’s tournament opponents seem to have little trouble shooting better than Butler’s regular season opponents, it has not translated to more points.
The 2009-10 season saw Butler allow 59.9 points per game during the regular season. The Bulldogs’ tourney opponents could barely muster 56, on average.
During the next campaign, Butler allowed 71.8 points per game in the regular season. That figure dropped to 61.3 during the tournament.
During the 2012-13 regular season, Butler allowed 63.8 points per contest. Bucknell managed just 56.
Despite allowing opponents to sink a higher percentage of shots during the tournament than they do in the regular season, the Bulldogs prohibit their tournament foes from scoring more total points.
Much of this likely has to do with Butler’s game tempo, which is typically relaxed and slow. It is harder for opponents to get off more shots when they just don’t have the ball very much.
Butler’s defense also forces opponents to make many passes and wind the shot clock down below 10 seconds as often as possible.
The cast has certainly changed for Butler since the 2009-10 season, but the system has not.
“We’re similar (to past Butler teams) in we focus on the defensive end,” senior center Andrew Smith said during the Bucknell postgame press conference. “We feel like, even if you’re having a bad night, you’re going to be able to play the game if you focus on defense. That’s the main similarity.”
While strong defense is clearly a reason why Butler can limit its tournament opponents’ point production, it is not as straightforward as that.
There are many college teams that play ‘strong defense’. But they don’t all play the same style of defense.
Stevens is known for switching up defensive views throughout contests so opponents are unable to focus on and try to overcome a single defensive outlook.
After the Bucknell victory, he talked about why he made the decision to put junior forward Khyle Marshall on Bucknell senior center Mike Muscala.
“They run a lot of action where we’re going to hedge a ball screen and Andrew is going to return to Khyle’s guy, and Khyle is going to return to Andrew’s guy,” Stevens said. “So it was almost like we pre-switched to guard the switch later on.”
Pre-switched to guard the switch? Not a phrase you hear very often in college basketball press conferences.
And that leads us to the final reason why Butler is continually able to defy the odds: Stevens as Butler’s coach.
Like I said above, the cast has certainly changed. It has to—players graduate, move on the NBA or other careers.
Stevens has resisted any possible temptations associated with jumping to a big conference school to build a system that senior guard Rotnei Clarke described as “tough.”
“I can’t explain it,” Clarke said. “It’s pretty complex. It’s something I’ve never seen before, the things that we do defensively, and it takes a little bit to understand.”
Stevens has installed a defensive system that works at the tournament level. And the most important part: he gets his players to invest in it wholeheartedly.
“Once (people) see us in person or on TV, they see how physical we are on defense,” sophomore forward Roosevelt Jones said. “Coach Stevens wants us to focus on defense, and so that’s what we do.”
Jones said he and his teammates knew they could come back when Bucknell jumped out to a 37-31 lead early in the second half.
“Coach Stevens said when we got back in the huddle that they were going to make a run, and we had to make our own run,” Jones said. “We knew we could come back if we stayed the course and played defense.”
Staying the course seems to be the true theme here. Statistics would not suggest that ‘the course’ leads to Butler victories in the tournament.
Luckily for the Butler community, Stevens and his players follow their own course.