NCAA Championship Game 2011: Butler Basketball Formidable, But Different Than Last Year's Team

Butler basketball is in the NCAA Championship game for the second straight season, a fact that has received a ton of justified attention over the past few days. It is worth noting, though, that the Butler team that will take on UConn on Monday night is not the same team that nearly shocked Duke in the 2010 NCAA Championship game.

The key difference is the loss of Gordon Hayward, a lottery pick in the 2010 NBA Draft that nearly gave Butler the win over Duke with his half-court heave. Last year, Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard took most of the shots for Butler, splitting up the lions share of the offensive load fairly evenly. But with Hayward now in the NBA, the three-headed monster has become a two-headed monster. Mack and Howard have shouldered an even heavier offensive load, picking up most of Hayward's shots for themselves.

This has had a reverse effect on both players. Howard has seen his efficiency rise with increased usage, developing a three-point shot and playing more on the perimeter. Howard's true shooting percentage went from 58.4 percent to 61.4 percent, a truly elite number given the amount of shots he takes. Mack, meanwhile, went through a shooting slump at midseason as he struggled to adjust to being the only major perimeter threat. For the season, his true shooting percentage of 53.2 percent is actually below average. But Mack has really turned it on in the NCAA Tournament, averaging nearly 22 points a game on 55 percent shooting in leading Butler to this point.

Mack's hot shooting and Howard's solid play offensively has masked the fact that Butler's defense hasn't been quite as good as it was last season. In last year's NCAA Tournament, Butler held every team but Duke to under a point per possession. Three of the five teams Butler beat (UTEPKansas State and Michigan State) scored less than 0.9 points per possession. This year, though, Butler's defense has been shaky at times, especially against Pittsburgh (who scored 1.19 points/possession) and Florida (who scored 1.08). This isn't to say Butler's defense this year has been bad -- just ask Wisconsin (0.87 points/possession) and VCU (0.94) -- but whereas last year's team won solely because of it's defense, this year's club has won in many different ways. One could argue this makes them even more dangerous.

Butler's success against UConn will therefore depend on what kind of defensive effort it gets. The Bulldogs struggled against the elite guard play of Florida and Pittsburgh, only winning because Mack was able to bail the team out with some hot shooting. The Bulldogs cannot afford a similar defensive lapse against Kemba Walker if they want to have more success this season in this game than they did last year. 

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