Early tomorrow afternoon, the UTEP Miners take on the Butler Bulldogs in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are ranked #8 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and #11 in the AP Poll. Butler, like UTEP, isn't on television a lot. Butler is one of those teams that always seems to not only be in the tournament but one of the teams that pulls an upset or two before making their exit.
My main concern going into tomorrow's contest is overconfidence. No, I'm not worried about the Butler overlooking the Miners. The Bulldogs are a veteran team, with extensive tournament experience. They know the importance of taking every game they play seriously. There is a reason why Butler didn't slip up one time in Horizon League play and take the nation's longest winning streak (20 games) into San Jose.
I'm worried about UTEP being overconfident. Why? Didn't the Miners just suffer a humbling loss to a team that couldn't even get a bye in the C-USA Tournament? Yes, but despite the Houston loss, the UTEP-Butler game has been portrayed as the most likely 5-12 seed game to end in an upset. Seemingly every national media outlet, Yahoo!, CBS, ESPN, and CNNSI, has anointed UTEP not as a potential but a likely Cinderella squad.
To make things worse, a likely second round game against Vanderbilt has most pundits automatically expecting the Butler-UTEP winner to advance to take on Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Projections and preview are the name of the game in March, but the flood of positive press coming UTEP's way has me cautious about their focus in the first round.
Previewing the Butler Bulldogs
Commissioner Gordon: The Bulldogs are led by 6'9" forward Gordon Hayward. The Wooden Award finalist is Butler's unquestioned leader and the heart and soul of their team. He leads the Bulldogs in points (15.4) and rebounds (8.5). Hayward, however, is something of a question mark going into the NCAA Tournament. Back spasms caused him to miss one of his teams final games, against Valparaiso. In the Bulldogs final two games, Hayward played extensively but didn't get into the rhythm of the Bulldogs offense. He only took 10 shots in those two games. The Bulldogs did however play their final game over a week ago, on March 8, so any lingering back issues Hayward had may have passed since he has had so much time to rest.
- The Dawg Pound: In Conference USA, the Miners enjoy being the team with the most overall depth in the league. Butler might not spread minutes around the way UTEP does, but they get consistent production from several key players. Eight Butler players average more than 10 minutes a game and four of them average double digits in points: Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, and Willie Veasley.
- Right Guard: Butler's best ball distributor is sophomore Ronald Nored (3.6 apg). His game is very similar to Julyan Stone's. He doesn't care if he scores or even gets to shoot the ball. Rather, his focus is on playing strong defense and running an offense that gets everyone involved.
Mack Attack: Sophomore Shelvin Mack is Butler's second best scoring option after Gordon Hayward. Mack is a quick, athletic guard, and his battle with Randy Culpepper could shape the flow of the game. Mack is probably Butler's most dangerous three point shooter (37%) and after the way Kelvin Lewis went off against UTEP's defense, expect Brad Steven's club to take advantage of that.
- Free Throw Advantage: The Bulldogs do shoot free throws better than the Miners. They shoot, as a team, just under 75% from the free throw line compared to UTEP's 67%. Forwards Matt Howard and Hayward both shoot over 80% from the field. If Derrick Caracter let's these guys get to the line, they will make UTEP pay for it.
- Are They Beatable? Absolutely. Butler plays smart, aggressive fundamentally sound basketball. And while they have rolled through the Horizon league with an unblemished record, there were several games where the Bulldogs could have stumbled. Loyola of Chicago and Detroit are both teams that could have beaten Butler. Chicago had the game tied at 47 with under a minute to play but Butler escaped.
Key Match-up: Derrick Caracter vs. Matt Howard
I'm anxious to see if Tony Barbee puts Arnett Moultrie of Jeremy Williams on Gordon Hayward, but in my mind, this game will be decided by whoever dominates the glass. Both teams have excellent guards, and both teams have shooters capable of taking over a game, but if the Miners want to advance to the second round, they will need Derrick Caracter to dominate the game inside. Howard isn't a great athlete, but he plays tough defense and is a very scrappy player. Perhaps the biggest mark he can have on the game is drawing cheap fouls on Derrick who has been absolutely plagued by foul trouble over the last several games. Derrick needs to be on the floor 30 minutes, not 20.