Good Wins: @Xavier, UAB, @Davidson
Bad Losses: Loyola (IL), @UW-Milwaukee
1. Head coach – I just voted Butler head coach Brad Stevens as my NBWA National Coach of the Year. After losing four starters and being picked to finish well down the Horizon League ladder, he’s led Butler right back to another NCAA Tournament. Plus he’s recruiting in-state against Indiana, Notre Dame, and Purdue. At the end of this season, his one returning starter is Horizon League Player of the Year Matt Howard and his all-freshman backcourt has already won 11 games on the road and powered the team to a 9-2 record against the Top 100. In an otherwise even first-round NCAA game, Stevens could be the difference for Butler.
2. A star player – The Horizon League recruits all of the Midwest’s best markets to a certain extent (Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Indianapolis), and Bulldogs sophomore forward Matt Howard, from Connersville, Ind. (population 15,411), is the league’s best player. Howard, a 6-foot-8 post presence, has accumulated double-doubles against Xavier and Ohio State.
“If we’re not the No. 1 team in the league, I’m not getting some of these awards,” Howard said to the Indianapolis Star. “A lot of it has to do with what they’ve been able to accomplish, and what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team.”
Lack of Tournament experience – Last week Butler just celebrated its final regular season home game at Hinkle Fieldhouse with a victory over Cleveland State. Why is that important? Well, the other 342 Division I college basketball teams call this occasion a Senior Day. One minor problem for Stevens: he didn’t have any seniors to honor.
I put this as a weakness simply because during March Madness, having no seniors is more of an unprecedented occurrence. Nobody knows how these three freshman starters will react to going from playing in a high school state tournament to their first NCAA Tournament.
Second Round – Butler’s fans travel with the best in the country. Last year Butler drew South Alabama in a first-round game in BIRMINGHAM (four-hour drive for the Jaguars, seven hours for Butler) and the 7-seed Bulldogs turned the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center into Hinkle Fieldhouse South during a 25-9 first-half run that led to a 81-61 victory.
Message to the top seed in whatever pod Butler gets placed: the neutral fans at that site will turn to the Bulldogs and you must be prepared for that. If Butler’s seeded in the Greensboro pod in the 1-8 or 2-7 matchup, watch for either fans of UNC or Duke to cheer plenty loud for the Bulldogs to upset their own team’s archrival.