Full disclosure right off the top: I did not expect the mighty Butler Bulldogs to make it this far and Syracuse was my Final Four choice out of the West Region. However, now that Butler is in the Sweet 16, and my bracket has been rendered unrecoverable, I am throwing my full rooting support behind Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.
Remember last year when Michigan State made their unexpected run to the Final Four, which was held in Detroit? I know that Indianapolis is not facing the same economic dire straits that Detroit is, but how wonderful of a story would it be if Butler made the Final Four in their own backyard?
The parallels would be far from exact, but in some ways it would be like college basketball’s version of the movie Hoosiers.
Before there can be any talk of a Butler appearance in the Final Four though, the Bulldogs must overcome a Syracuse team that has looked as impressive as any in the tournament thus far. Let’s take a look at the matchup.
Sweet 16: #1 Syracuse v #5 Butler (West Region)
- Syracuse-Butler Date: Thursday, March 25
- Syracuse-Butler Tip Time: 7:07 ET
- Syracuse-Butler Location: Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City, UT
- Syracuse-Butler Announcers: Gus Johnson and Len Elmore
- Syracuse-Butler Spread: Syracuse -7
- StubHub: Butler-Syracuse Tickets
- StubHub: West Regional Final Tickets
- StubHub: West Regional Tickets (both sessions)
Next, let’s analyze this Sweet 16 matchup.
[Note: If you followed our NCAA Tournament coverage here at MSF last year, you know that I published previews similar to this one for each game from the Sweet 16 on. Using statistical analysis from the ESPN Bracket Predictor, which is powered byTeamRankings.com, plus my own knowledge an intuition, I went 12-3 picking the 15 games that concluded the 2009 Tournament. The methodology is essentially the same this year; we'll see if the results are.]
Here is how the numbers break down between Butler and Syracuse:
Syracuse was the best team all season in one of the country’s toughest conferences and despite an early exit in the Big East Tournament, they deserved to be the #1 seed. Many argued that Butler was underseeded at #5, and this is probably true. Seeing how #2 seeds like Villanova and #3 seeds like New Mexico flamed out, Butler certainly seems more deserving in retrospect.
As for the offensive numbers, Syracuse is a well-oiled machine (#7 and #2 in points per possession and effective FG%, respectively) led by Wesley Johnson and six other players who average between 8 and 12 points. This is a team that can score in a variety of ways and, as Gonzaga found out on Sunday, keeps the pressure on all game. Syracuse is also a very good offensive rebounding team, which Butler is not. The ‘Cuse has a 3-2 advantage in the offensive stats.
Defensively, both teams are excellent. Butler is slightly better in opponents points per possession, but Syracuse plays a vaunted matchup zone defense that can present a tremendous amount of problems for teams that are unfamiliar with it. Luckily for Brad Stevens, he’ll have three days of practice to prepare his team.
One trait Butler has to maintain is its rebounding. The Bulldogs are 20th in the nation in offensive rebound % on defense, and Matt Howard must lead Butler’s effort to keep the Orange off the offensive glass. Butler has a 3-2 advantage in the defensive stats.
When picking this game, the knee-jerk pick is Syracuse. The Orange were a top 5 team all year, they have a Big East pedigree, and they have looked tremendous in disposing of their first two tournament opponents without big man Arinze Onuaku (whose status is unknown right now). However, I caution you before automatically assuming Syracuse’s charge towards Indy will continue simply because they are playing a team from the Horizon League.
Butler is good; really good. And this is not just some rag-tag, upstart, scrappy group of guys. Butler has NBA players. Gordon Hayward is already being projected as a 1st round NBA draft pick if he leaves school after this year. Matt Howard, though undersized for an NBA center, could have a future in the league as a rugged interior defender and rebounder. And you underestimate Shelvin Mack, Willie Veasley, and Ronald Nored at your own risk.
If you think Butler is simply going to be blown away by Syracuse’s talent, you’re mistaken. Syracuse enters as the favorite, and rightfully so. But if these teams played 10 times, Syracuse would win 7, maybe 6 of them. This is not a case where Butler needs to play perfect basketball and Syracuse needs to completely fade for the Bulldogs to have any chance.
Thursday night we are going to see two of the best coached basketball teams in America do battle, and I anticipate one of the most efficiently executed games of the entire tournament.
Butler-Syracuse Prediction: So who will win? I’d love to say Butler, and my heart will be pulling for the Bulldogs, but I have to go with Syracuse (although I do not think they will cover the 7 point spread). Syracuse is simply playing outstanding through the first two games of the tournament and their talent is deeper than Butler’s.
The matchup of Wesley Johnson and Gordon Hayward will be fun to watch, but ultimately I think the experience and sharp shooting of Andy Rautins (and his MC Hammer shorts) plus the zone of Syracuse will prove to be too much for Butler to overcome.
Now I just hope I’m wrong.
Syracuse 73 | Butler 68
* – Gordon Hayward photo credit: Michael Conroy / AP via NBC Sports
* – Andy Rautins photo credit: Beadle Maniacs