Last Updated: 2017-03-20
We figured there was a decent chance at getting two Big East teams in the Sweet 16. The Butler Bulldogs would have been a popular pick alongside the Villanova Wildcats, but the Xavier Musketeers are the other one. Xavier plays on Thursday, so we’ll know if the pressure is on Butler to be the lone Elite Eight representative for the “sixth power conference” in college basketball or if the pressure is on to match the Musketeers’ achievement. Standing in Butler’s way are the North Carolina Tar Heels, who are the #1 seed in the South Region. The Tar Heels opened a touchdown favorite over the Bulldogs right after the matchups were set, but the ACC hasn’t had a great run this postseason, so we’ll have to see how the money comes in for this one.
What Brad Stevens started in Indianapolis has definitely carried over to the Chris Holtmann era. The Bulldogs are basically a fixture in the NCAA Tournament at this point. Butler missed in 2012 and 2014, but made the national championship game in 2010 and 2011 and now makes its fifth Sweet 16 appearance in the last 15 years. The Bulldogs will enter play for this one with a 25-8 straight up record and a 19-12 mark against the spread. Butler was bounced in the first round of the Big East Conference Tournament and that may have been a good thing because the team got a chance to catch a breath. They’ve had minimal trouble against Winthrop and Middle Tennessee State, but UNC will be the first single-digit seed for the Bulldogs in the tournament.
It certainly appeared like North Carolina was going to run away and hide in the second round against Arkansas. Many have scrutinized the officiating late in the game that seemed to benefit North Carolina and it’s hard to prove that it wasn’t the case given some of the sequences. The Tar Heels survived and advanced, which is basically the theme of March Madness this year for the top seeds that haven’t been knocked off. The Tar Heels are 28-7 straight up with an 18-15 mark against the number. North Carolina has a few days to laugh about its chief rival getting bounced and also about how it is the last ACC team left standing.
Butler took the lead with 14:31 left in the first half and never gave it up. In fact, the Bulldogs never led by fewer than three points after the 11:49 mark of the first half. Through two games, the Bulldogs have played exceptional defense and that’s the way to win without star scorers in this tournament. Defense travels and teams that can be disciplined on defense are able to have great success. Specifically, teams that are able to defend the three-point line are going to have success. There have been a lot of big, momentum-shifting shots hit in this tournament and the vast majority of them have been shots hit from deep. Middle Tennessee State shot 21.1 percent from distance in the second round. Winthrop shot 36 percent, but the Eagles’ best player, Keon Johnson, was just 3-of-10 from deep. The biggest difference here is that Butler is going to face a much more athletic, much quicker team in North Carolina and Butler is not a good rebounding team.
Kelan Martin has done his thing for Butler. No many how good a team is defensively, they still need to score points (Hi, Virginia!). Martin averages 16 points per game in just under 29 minutes per contest. He only had 10 in 17 minutes against Winthrop, but he had 19 in 28 minutes against Middle Tennessee State. Holtmann has managed his roster quite well in this tournament and purposely kept Martin fresh for the second game. He grabbed two quick fouls late in the first half, but wasn’t in foul trouble. Andrew Chrabascz had 15 points in the win over MTSU. Kamar Baldwin had 13. Butler only managed two offensive rebounds, so this upcoming game is definitely a tougher matchup and the Bulldogs are going to need to hit some long jumpers and play tight defense in order to pull off another upset. Without that go-to scorer, it’s going to be a very tough road for Butler.
On the other hand, we’ve seen really good teams struggle in this tournament against teams that they should have beaten. Duke comes to mind. North Carolina absolutely had more trouble than they should have against Arkansas. While many focused on how Arkansas got treated by the officials down the stretch, the Razorbacks looked like the team without NCAA Tournament experience over the final few minutes. North Carolina relaxed in the first half to let Arkansas back in the game and that led to the frantic finish. Many studies have proven that playoff experience doesn’t really mean a whole lot, but it certainly feels like leadership qualities come to the forefront at the end of these fire drills that are March Madness games. North Carolina was the composed team and it showed. Right, wrong, or indifferent with regards to the officiating, the Tar Heels moved on because they executed better than Arkansas and made free throws when they needed to in the waning minutes.
That being said, there have to be some worries about North Carolina, especially on offense. Texas Southern provided little resistance, so there isn’t much to gain from that game. North Carolina shot just 38 percent from the field against an Arkansas team that wasn’t exactly praised for its defense coming into the tournament. The Tar Heels turned it over 17 times. They had 18 offensive rebounds, but that makes the shooting percentage look even worse when you consider the number of point-blank opportunities throughout the game. Justin Jackson was just 5-of-14 from the floor, but hit some huge shots down the stretch. Joel Berry II, battling a bit of a sprained ankle, was just 2-of-13 from the floor and 4-of-7 at the line. Kennedy Meeks was the star with 16 and 11, including seven ORebs, so the Tar Heels will look to feed the big man again on Friday.
College Basketball Free Pick: North Carolina Tar Heels -7
The Tar Heels have some big edges in this game. For one thing, they will be the most athletic team that Butler has faced this season. The Bulldogs are not a good rebounding team at all and North Carolina is probably the best offensive rebounding team in the country. As much as we look at North Carolina are an offense-only team, they are up to 19th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Roy Williams is a great recruiter and hasn’t been the best in-game coach, so Chris Holtmann could have an edge there, but North Carolina simply has too much talent and athleticism for Butler. While there are a lot of sound, structured teams in the Big East, you won’t find any with North Carolina’s athletic prowess. It’ll be tough for Butler to defend that.