Xavier and Villanova served as a reminder of why getting the best of the number in college basketball is important. If you got the opening -5 or the early -5.5 on Villanova, you won. If you picked off one of the stray +6.5s on Xavier, you won. If you got 6, you pushed. Villanova was only 11-of-16 from the free throw line and left some points on the floor in the 68-62 win over Xavier. It’s like I always say, the number doesn’t matter until it does and the number mattered there.
Let’s see if the number matters in another Big East tilt on Tuesday night when the Butler Bulldogs visit the St. John’s Red Storm for some New Year’s Eve basketball in Queens. This is the last college basketball game of 2019 with a light schedule for Day #365 with a 7:30 p.m. ET tip at Carnesecca Arena. Overnight lines showed Butler as a 4.5-point favorite with a total of 138. (sorry for using the overnights, but my indigestion doesn’t care about my need to sleep)
LaVall Jordan’s Bulldogs are building quite a résumé for the month of Madness. Through 13 games, including battles against Minnesota, Stanford, Florida, Baylor, and Purdue, the Bulldogs only have one loss. It was a one-point defeat down in Waco against Baylor, a game in which Baylor made one more three-pointer than Butler and it proved to be the difference in the ballgame.
Bart Torvik’s site is extremely high on Butler, as the Bulldogs are lined as a favorite in all but one of their Big East games, with the lone red number coming at Villanova on January 21. I’m not entirely sure that will be the case, but it has been a very impressive start to the season for the Bulldogs, who have allowed more than .95 points per possession on just one occasion thus far.
First-year head coach Mike Anderson is doing some fine work with St. John’s. The Red Storm picked up Anderson following his eight years in Fayetteville with the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Johnnies are off to an 11-2 start themselves, though their strength of schedule ranks 336th according to Ken Pomeroy. Butler’s on the other hand, ranks just outside the top 100.
St. John’s schedule looks a touch better after West Virginia beat Ohio State in a neutral-site game in Cleveland this past weekend. That remains the signature win for the Red Storm, who have losses to Vermont at home and Arizona State on a neutral to this point. The other big win for St. John’s came last time out in a neutral setting in San Francisco at the new Chase Center over Arizona by a 70-67 count. St. John’s led that game by 14 at the break, but only finished the game 21-of-60 from the floor, including 2-of-13 from deep.
Not scoring has been a concern for St. John’s most of the season. Had it not been for the incredibly weak schedule, we could be talking about a much different record. The Johnnies are shooting just 31.6% from distance and 47.3% inside the arc. Anderson’s team ranks 327th in 3P rate, so at least they are savvy enough not to shoot a lot of threes if they can’t make them. But, for a team that can’t score, being in the top 20 in tempo seems ill-advised.
This looks like a substantial pace war. Butler, the better team, ranks 333rd in adjusted tempo according to KenPom and 335th per Torvik. Butler is also a much more efficient offense, as the Bulldogs rank 20th in 2P% and 77th in 3P%. Butler also takes tremendous care of the basketball with a 16.3% TO% on offense. The Johnnies take care of the ball, too, but their schedule has a lot to do with that. They also rank 31st in TO% on defense and 41st in eFG% on defense.
Expect some higher-scoring games down the line for these two teams, especially for games in the range of a foul fest. St. John’s opponents have only shot 62.7% from the free throw line, which ranks 11th in the country, and Butler’s are only shooting 62.2% at the stripe. That tends to normalize as the season goes along.
Speaking of defense, Butler has been among the country’s elites. The Bulldogs rank 14th in eFG% on defense, 22nd in defending the three-point line, and 34th in defending the two-point area. They’ve also done an excellent job on the defensive glass, which has been a strength for St. John’s.
Maybe the Red Storm defense is legit, but the offensive problems are legit, too. And St. John’s isn’t playing a team outside the top 200 in this one. While this is only the third true road game for Butler, the Bulldogs have a much more impressive set of statistics against a much tougher schedule.
If Mustapha Heron can give it a go with his bum ankle, that would go a long way in helping the cause for the Red Storm. Even with Heron, though, St. John’s has a tall task here. LJ Figueroa has been great, but Butler has several scoring options and the defensive size and skill to neutralize St. John’s leading scorer if he is missing a key member of the supporting cast.
Free throws saved both teams offensively in the St. John’s/Arizona game, but I don’t think free throws save the Red Storm here.
Pick: Butler -4.5
Lean: Under 138