For my money, beating Utah Valley, Stephen F. Austin, and Tennessee Tech doesn't really give me enough information to properly evaluate this year's Gopher squad. I mean, I can tell they aren't going to be bad, but are they going to good? Or a mediocre bubble team? Or a sweet 16 type? Maybe more? And that's where Butler comes in. Tomorrow's game against the #10 Bulldogs is about as good of a barometer as you could ask for.
The Bulldogs have taken the mantle of "the little program that could" away from Gonzaga, making the NCAA Tournament the last three years, including a sweet 16 appearance two years ago. This season the Bulldogs are at 3-0, and although they haven't had a serious tester, they haven't exactly cupcaked it up either, beating Davidson at home and Northwestern and Evansville on the road. They struggled a bit in all three games, but I think this is more of a team still trying to find its stride rather than an actually struggling team, but we'll find out in a hurry. This isn't just the biggest test of the year so far for the Gophers, it is for the Bulldogs as well.
They ended last season on a bit of a downer, losing in the Horizon Conference Championship and then getting bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But the whole team is back - seriously, they have their top 10 scorers back from last year - including the three-man soul of the team: forwards Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward, and guard Shelvin Mack.
First up is the 6-8 Howard, the leader of the team. He's kind of like that annoying hustly guy, like a Brian Cardinal or Travis Busch, but with actual talent. He led the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding last year at 14.8 and 6.8 per game, but has really struggled this season. His points, assists, field goal percentage, and turnovers are at a career worst level, and although he's rebounding better than ever there is something off here, especially after a 1-9 shooting performance against Evansville. Now, in that game he still managed to put up a double/double thanks to some tough rebounding and getting to the line 10 times, so it's imperative that Ralph and company keep him in check. He's the kind of player who can hurt you even if he's struggling, so I suggest the Gophers not be the team that finally gets him back on track.
Joining him at forward is the 6-8 Hayward, this season's leading scorer and rebounder, who adds a very different dimension with his inside/outside abilities than what Howard brings to the table. He is, however, like Howard in that he's very tough, very strong, a tenacious rebounder, and can get to the line. With the Gophers strength lying mostly outside of the paint, it's going to be very interesting to see how they handle these two. Since Hayward is more lanky and athletic, I expect DJ to man up on him. This will be a true test of his defensive abilities. I am really looking forward to it. If he can shut Hayward down, expect more national recognition. You could consider this his "Papa Doc" moment.
Finally is the 6-3 Shelvin Mack, who may be the key to this team. He isn't technically their point guard, but he does a lot of the ball-handling and led the team in assists last season, and posted a very nice 1.7-1.0 Assist-to-Turnover ratio, which he's upped to 3.8-1 so far this season, all while adding 13 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds per game. He's a very solid player - fundamentally sound and athletic - and just gets things done. He actually reminds me a bit of a shorter Damian Johnson, and you can rest assured that is a big-time compliment. Westbrook is going to have his hands full. If we get the fully engaged, totally into the game Westbrook, this will be fun. If we get the half-stoned version, Mack is going to destroy him (and there's no chance Joseph can guard him). Of course, if we get F-You Westbrook, well, I'll take that version any time. There's also a possibility Nolen gets Mack, but I'm betting not.
There is plenty of other returning talent as well, including defensive stopper Willie Veasley (it will be interesting to see how Rodney fares), PG Ronald Nored (Nolen should (SHOULD) be able to make his day hell), and three-point bomber Zach Hahn (no relation to Andy), who I am very worried about . Make no mistake, this team is loaded.
They are, and always will be, a team that relies on their efficiency and solid play rather than athleticism, and that will always scare me. I've actually seen a couple of places where this team is picked for the Final Four. I don't quite see that, but I also don't quite see a Gopher victory. They are in the same class, however, and this is going to be a good one:
Butler 65, Minnesota 63.
If the Gophers can hang tight with Butler and then win the next two of the tournament, that will be a huge success, and a big step in becoming more than a bubble team.
FUN FACT: Bobby Plump, the player Jimmy Chitwood was based on in the movie Hoosiers, attended Butler after graduating from Milan High, and led the Bulldogs in scoring in 1958.
Also I couldn't find any pictures of any female Butler fans, so instead here's a picture of the always awesome Eliza Dusku dressed like a french maid. Close enough? Close enough.
For more info on the 76 classic, From the Barn has a very nice three-part preview up on his site. Check it out.