Much like George Mason did for the CAA in 2006, Butler put the Horizon League on the map in 2010 with a remarkable run to the National Championship game. In order to have a safe chance to get back there in 2011 though, they'll have to go through the conference's top seed in Milwaukee.
The Panthers were the first ones to really start the stirrings of the Horizon's quality basketball. Astute college fans will remember their back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances that resulted in at least one win in 2005 and 2006. Of course '05 resulted in the Panthers destroying a bevy of brackets when they made a run to the Sweet 16. Not that we should overlook the Bulldogs Sweet 16 runs in 2003 and 2007 in addition to last season.
In a lot of ways it's old versus new in tonight's final, and you'll see why momentarily. So without further ado, let's get to the contenders.
Milwaukee Panthers, #1 Seed, 19-12 (13-5)
It wasn't all that long ago that Milwaukee was almost in the same position as Butler is today. Save for the minor detail of making a run to the national championship game last season, the Bulldogs run of dominance in the Horizon League over the last five years is no different than what the Panthers did in the first few years of the new millennium. From 2003 to 2006, they played in four straight tournament championship games, winning three of them, including wins over Butler in 2003 and 2006. They have a chance to do it for at third time tonight following a dramatic mid-season turnaround that saw the Panthers win 9 straight conference games to earn the top overall seed in the Horizon League.
Milwaukee is an average, but respectable offense, led by senior forward Anthony Hill who has played well above his season averages down the stretch (24 points and 11 rebounds in the semis vs Valparaiso). Following him are four other players who averaged between 8 and 13 points for an offense that averaged just under 70 points per game and ranked 120th in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy.
There are a few things that jump out about the Panthers play, the first of which is the almost exactly even shot breakdown between jumpers and field goals attempted around the basket (ie: post ups, runners, lay ups). The team isn't a particularly good jump shooting team, hitting just 32% of attempts according to Synergy Sports Technology, but they make up for it by ranking in the top 25% nationally in scoring efficiency on shots at the rim. It comes as no surprise then that while spot-up scenarios may be the most prevalent play type in the Panther offense, post-ups and cuts without the basketball are their most efficient. Hill and Tony Meier account for more than 80% of Milwaukee's post-up possessions this season and both have adjusted field goal percentages above 51%.
The other facet of offense they excel in is getting to the free throw line. Nearly 15% of Milwaukee's possessions ended in a trip to the charity stripe during the regular season and they attempted nearly one free throw for every two field goals - a ratio that puts them among the elite teams in the country. The only problem? The Panthers shoot an abysmal 65.1% from the line, the 288th worst mark in Division 1.
Defensively, things don't break down very well for the Panthers, they struggle here. Opposing teams shoot nearly 50% on two point field goals and 36% from beyond the arc, both marks rank in the bottom third nationally and are well above the national average. The only play type they've consistently defended well has been cutting off the screener in the pick and roll setting, but that has accounted for just 6% of their defended possessions this season. Luckily for them, Butler doesn't play at a fast pace as Milwaukee is among the worst transition defenses in the country, allowing an adjusted field goal percentage of over 71.
Butler Bulldogs, #2 Seed, 22-9 (13-5)
There's no question this isn't the same team we saw last season - losing Gordon Hayward can do that to a team. While this team has dramatically receded as a defensive power (we'll get into that more in a bit), offensively there hasn't been as sharp of a drop off, rather, the Bulldogs have adapted their scoring game. Butler remains a top 50 offense when using the metric of adjusted efficiency, actually improving believe it or not, but their shooting numbers have taken a bit of a hit. The explanation for their improved scoring efficiency has been a tremendous drop in the percentage of their plays that end in turnovers, ranking as one of the better teams in the country in this regard.
Not surprisingly the offense is built around the duo of Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, names everyone got familiar with last season. Those two combined for 43% of the team's points this season, which while not unusual to see at a mid-major school, is still a high mark nonetheless.
Butler isn't going to run anyone out of the gym, that's not their style, rather kill teams with their efficiency and lack of mistakes. When using the metric of points per possession, the Bulldogs rank in the top 30% nationally for scoring efficiency in every single play type (meaning spot-up, post-up, pick and roll, etc). What makes them difficult to defend is the willingness they show to score in a variety of ways, rather than sticking to one or two bread and butter sets like a lot of teams. Spot-up attempts make up just over 20% of their possessions, but after that it's a buffet of possibilities. They do run a high number of pick and roll sets, something you don't always see at the college level, but it speaks to the ability of their guards and the confidence the coaching staff has in them. In fact, when examining the team's pick and roll derived offense (this is a combination of shot attempts from the ball handler and shot attempts resulting from the ball handler passing), the trio of Mack, Ronald Norad and Shawn Vanzant all produce adjusted field goal percentages of better than 50%. When you can create that kind of movement and capitalize on it at the college level, you're throwing a lot at opposing defenses to think about.
The Bulldogs have been good, not great on defense this year. They don't force nearly as many turnovers as they did during their run to the national championship and are allowing teams to shoot with much more success inside the arc (they're almost as bad here as Milwaukee). A lot of the struggles seem to derive from help defense and the interior players. Butler is at it's worst defending isolation plays and post-up possessions. In fact, when breaking the court down into zones, the Bulldogs rank 309th nationally in defending shots taken from inside of 17 feet, which doesn't bode well facing a Panthers team that loves to dump the ball inside to their bigs given how efficient they are.
Milwaukee won both regular season meetings with Butler, the first a 6-point win in overtime at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the second a 24-point blow out in early January that saw Kaylon Williams record the school's first triple-double in 18 years. The single glaring difference between the teams in both games: scoring efficiency. Milwaukee shot 57-of-104 (55%) in the two wins versus Butler's 49-of-125 (39%) effort in a pair of losses. It's come down to just the simple fact of working to get good looks at the basket while preventing the opposition from doing the same.
With that said, one of the hardest things to do in sports is beat a team three times in the same season and Butler has been playing great basketball as of late. This one will be a battle, but the Bulldogs are going dancing in 2011 with an automatic bid.