Saturday, November 19, 2011

Louisville 69, Butler 53

[recap] [box score]

This game told us a lot more about Butler than it told us about Louisville.

The Cardinals were without four key players: Peyton Siva, Rakeem Buckles, Wayne Blackshear, and Mike Marra. They're going to have to get used to playing without Blackshear and Marra: Blackshear is out at least a couple of months after undergoing pre-season surgery to repair a torn labrum, and Marra was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in the season's second game. Buckles is recovering from an ACL tear suffered in late February, so presumably he'll be back sooner rather than later.

Siva's injury is the least serious, a severe ankle sprain suffered in practice this week. But it's also the most important. Siva is the point guard, the team's emotional leader, its best perimeter defender and probably its most dynamic offensive player, too. (If you can't tell, I'm pretty high on Siva.)

So this win, a convincing one at Hinkle Fieldhouse against the two-time national runners-up, looks impressive. But this Butler team is far from the one that came an inch against Duke and a lid on the basket against UConn from winning back-to-back titles.

The Bulldog team that went to the Final Four last year after losing Gordon Hayward was surprising, but this squad has even less coming back. Shelvin Mack gave up his final season of eligibility, leaving the team in the hands of experienced but limited guard Ronald Nored. Matt Howard graduated, leaving Andrew Smith in charge of anchoring the paint.

Smith picked up two quick fouls in the first half and wasn't a factor thereafter. (Given how often a player is ineffective after sitting most of the first half with two fouls, I'm becoming more and more convinced that coaches should be willing to risk the guy picking up a third in the first half.) That left Khyle Marshall to take on the bulk on the frontcourt duties, and he responded by being perhaps the lone bright spot for Butler, with game highs in both points (20) and rebounds (six). Chase Stigall was the only other Bulldog in double figures, with 11 points, all of which came in the first half.

Nored's afternoon requires a little more discussion to dissect. He had just three points on 0-for-5 from the floor but tallied seven assists -- the kind of stat line that would have been perfectly acceptable last year, when Butler could afford for Nored to be a role player.

This year is different, and that's a big problem. The Butler Way is all about playing within yourself, but the team's great success over the past couple of seasons has also been built upon the shoulders of individuals stepping up to replace those who had larger roles the previous season. With a pretty young team, Brad Stevens needs Nored to step up. In that regard, it was good to see Nored trying to create some offense for himself off the dribble. But unfortunately for Butler, Nored isn't very good at that, and if his team has to rely on it all year, they're probably going to lose.

Butler's now 1-2, with a loss to Evansville and a win over Chattanooga preceding this one. There's still plenty of opportunity to make a splash in the non-conference: at Indiana on November 27, Xavier on December 7, Purdue on December 17, at Gonzaga on December 20, at Stanford on December 22. The Horizon League is also very tough this year, and so some wins there could help Butler's resume. But all those opportunities could easily go the other way. It's early, and I have a lot of faith in Brad Stevens, but I have a feeling that this could be a long year in Indianapolis.

Louisville notes: Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric had big offensive second halfs to spark the Cardinals. Smith did it inside and out, while Kuric did most of his damage from behind the arc, which is where he usually does most of his damage ... Gorgui Dieng is most known for being an elite shotblocker, but he had two assists in this game, including a jaw-dropping touch pass that you couldn't possibly expect from a 6'10" Senegalese sophomore ... The Cardinal offense was shaky without Siva in the lineup, particularly in the first half, when Louisville shot 52 percent but committed nine turnovers. It was nice, however, to see them look to take advantage of Smith's absence by going into the paint. They held a one-point halftime lead despite being something like 2-for-10 from three-point land in the first half. With Siva out, and being a perimeter-oriented team in general, it would ahve been easy for Louisville to resort to selfish perimeter play, but they didn't.

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