Butler advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011, their second straight season in the national championship, with a 74–65 win over Middle Tennessee State in Milwaukee on Saturday. Here’s how the Bulldogs became one of the last 16 teams standing this season.
1. They shot the lights out
In his final public-facing act as Oklahoma State head coach, new Illinois coach Brad Underwood noted the way the game has changed at the college level. Specifically, he lamented his team’s first-round loss to Michigan, despite winning the rebounding battle by 19, thanks in large part to the Wolverines connecting on 16 of their 29 attempts from three-point land. A similar, though not as strong, emphasis on the three was at the center of Butler’s offense on Saturday. The Bulldogs went 6 for 9 from behind the arc in the first half. Kelan Martin led the way, drilling three triples, leading to a game-high 19 points. The Blue Raiders weren’t nearly as successful from distance, making four of their 19 attempts. The Bulldogs’ advantages, in both makes and efficiency, staked them to an early lead and helped them keep the Blue Raiders at arm’s length all night.
2. Kamar Baldwin and Kethan Savage silenced Giddy Potts
Potts, the Blue Raiders’ starting point guard, averaged 15.8 points per game heading into the second-round tilt with Butler. Foul trouble limited him to just 23 minutes in the first-round win over Minnesota on Thursday, but he still scored 15 points. In our pregame breakdown of Saturday’s matchup, we said the Blue Raiders would not be able to pull the upset without a big game from their star point guard. Potts was held completely off the scoreboard, going 0 for 7 overall, and 0 for 3 from distance. Butler freshman point guard Kamar Baldwin, playing in the second NCAA tournament game of his life, absolutely shut down the electric Potts, drawing primary duty on him during his 32 minutes. Not only did he hold Potts completely in check, he did it without drawing a foul. Meanwhile, redshirt senior Kethan Savage provided reinforcements, guarding Potts when Baldwin was getting a rest, and occasionally giving him a break from Potts when both were on the floor. Antwain Johnson stepped up in a big way, especially in the second half, scoring 19 points, and JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw combined for 32 more, but the Blue Raiders needed more out of their point guard. Thanks to Baldwin and, to a lesser extent, Savage, they didn’t get it.
3. The Bulldogs handled Middle Tennessee’s 1-3-1
After falling into an early hole against Minnesota on Thursday, Middle Tennessee completely turned the game around with its 1-3-1 zone, on which it traps at half court. It deployed it at just about the same time on Saturday, breaking it out after the first few possessions of the game. Andrew Chrabascz turned the ball over on that first possession against the 1-3-1, leading to an easy run-out for the Blue Raiders. The Bulldogs didn’t turn it over again facing the 1-3-1. Instead, they handled it deftly, getting a few quick, open threes, but more often simply breaking it before getting into a halfcourt set. When the Blue Raiders went back to it after cutting the lead to five points with less than two minutes left, Chrabascz found Martin for a wide-open layup from beyond half court. Not only did they prevent the Blue Raiders from generating the number of turnovers they usually do with the look, they forced them to come out of it and play more man-to-man than they did against Minnesota. From there, the Bulldogs were able to isolate favorable matchups, resulting in Martin’s big night, as well as a 15-point game for Chrabascz.
Quite simply, Butler is the better team, and played like it on Saturday. A matchup with the winner of North Carolina and Arkansas awaits in the Sweet 16.