The Butler Bulldogs battled all evening–even led at halftime 40-30, but stalled late against Seton Hall, losing 78-70 at a sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse.
It felt like a heated March Madness game, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see these two teams battling it out again to determine a Big East Conference crown down the road this season.
Too much Myles Powell (29 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists).
Too much Romaro Gill (17 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocks).
Butler lost on Wednesday evening.
It felt like it was one of those games where at home, behind a frenzied Hinkle Fieldhouse backing them up, that the Bulldogs would find a way to grit this one out late and simply will their way to a win.
That didn’t happen.
However, it’s important to not dwell on this one loss too much.
The #18 Seton Hall Pirates are a very good basketball team.
They were a preseason favorite to win the conference.
Like Butler, they play great defense. They have size (7’2″, 255 pound Romaro Gill) and arguably the best player in the Big East Conference (and one of the top overall in the country), Myles Powell.
They’re well coached, as the Pirates’ Kevin Willard is a really good head coach nationally and one of the best in the Big East.
After leading 40-30 at halftime, the wheels came off for Butler a bit in the second half.
Foul trouble to starting point guard Aaron Thompson, who picked up four fouls early in the second half, forced “super 6th man” Jordan Tucker–who was brilliant in the first half with 12 points (4-5 FG, 3-4 3 PT) to come in a bit earlier than expected and also for freshman guard Khalif Battle to play meaningful minutes in the second half.
It seemed to take its toll down the stretch.
According to ButlerHoops.com’s Jared Grubbs, Thompson played just 3 minutes in the second half, and Butler was -15 with him on the bench for the entire game.
During the second half, Thompson came in with 4 fouls at the 7:45 mark and fouled out with his 5th foul around the 6:30 mark–biting on a Powell 3 point pump fake and leaving his feet.
In Thompson’s absence, Butler lost its best perimeter defender against Powell (not that Kamar Baldwin can’t effectively defend him) and also its offensive catalyst–as their floor general’s ability to dribble-drive into the paint and manage the game’s overall tempo, helps free up his teammates for easy looks and controls the overall pace of play in Butler’s favor.
Thompson may not be able to shoot effectively from distance, but he’s so good right now at getting into the paint and either forcing the defense to collapse, then finding a cutting or open teammate, or simply hitting tear drops around the rim.
Butler really missed him out there tonight.
His loss also exploited Butler’s one main roster flaw: the lack of a true backup point guard.
Don’t get me wrong, Baldwin is more than capable of running the point, but it puts more strain on him to not only bring the ball up and initiate the offense, but also be the team’s leading scorer–while guarding the opposing team’s best player, Powell.
That’s a lot of weight on Butler’s best player’s shoulders–who’s already carrying a lot of it. He can handle it, but at what cost?
It also forced freshman Khalif Battle to play some big minutes in the second half, and while the freshman has shown promise this season and didn’t embarrass himself by any means–I’m not sure he was a huge asset out there either tonight. He may not be quite ready yet for this caliber of Big East heavyweight clash, and for a young player, that’s okay.
Tucker, who was terrific in the first half with 12 points, had his only points as two made free throws in the second half–finishing with 14 points and 10 ‘grown man’ rebounds.
By end of the game, playing 30 hard minutes, Tucker looked a bit gassed, and that’s not an indictment on his conditioning as much as it was that he was accustomed to playing 20.5 minutes on the season (his average).
Thus, Thompson’s loss exhausted Butler’s guard depth–which hurt the team’s success.
All-Big East guard Kamar Baldwin led the Bulldogs with 19 points (7-14 FG, 1-5 3 PT), 6 assists, 3 rebounds, a block, and a steal–including this ridiculous, highlight reel reverse layup.
Senior wing Sean McDermott was once again steady with 11 points (4-12 FG, 2-7 3 PT), 3 rebounds, an assist, and a steal–plus, who could forget his circus shot, reverse layup to close the first half.
Golden just had a tough night shooting the basketball (2-9 FG) all-around, while the length of the Pirates’ frontcourt gave the 6’7″ Nze some problems.
Nze’s disappearance on the bench for extended minutes during the second half was one of the game’s bigger questions for the Bulldogs–especially since he wasn’t in foul trouble.
Butler did get a bit of a lift from graduate senior transfer big man Derrik Smits off the bench, who had 6 points (3-4 FG) and 3 rebounds, and backup power forward Christian David had some nice plays defensively.
Butler actually took the lead, 66-65, with a big time, “and one” play by McDermott with 3:48 left in the second half, but it was all downhill for the Dawgs from there.
The Pirates would hit two free throws and a Powell 3 point shot, taking a 70-66 lead with 3:13 left. Butler would counter with a nifty Smits inside post hook to close the gap to 70-68 with 1:16 remaining, but the dagger came from Rhoden, who drilled a wide open three point shot with two seconds left on the shot clock to give the Pirates a 73-68 lead with 0:40 seconds left, and one they wouldn’t relent.
It was a critical defensive breakdown for Butler.
During a season in which they’ve been awesome defensively.
This game had an unfortunate outcome, but the Bulldogs are still a really good basketball team–and one that should still seriously challenge for a Big East title and a high seed in the NCAA tournament (even if it ultimately isn’t a #1 seed).
The #5 Butler Bulldogs (15-2) take on the DePaul Blue Demons (12-5) next this Saturday, 1 PM EST on FSN.
(For what it’s worth, Butler dropped to #7 in the KenPom rankings and NET respectively, but such is the life in the Big East.).
Butler simply needs to get the next one and start a brand new winning streak.