I recall a very intangible, non-statistical, tempo-full feeling in Lucas Oil Stadium with 3:15 remaining in the 2010 National Championship contest between Duke and Butler. Even though the Blue Devils were only ahead by five points at 60-55, it just didn’t feel possible that the Bulldogs would be able to both close the two-possession gap and then win. It felt like a giant invisible wet blanket descending down upon the partisan local crowd. Some combination of Mystique and Aura, Big Game Experience and officiating was going to do Butler in, everybody just knew it.
With the December 4 title game rematch in New Jersey, that feeling returned about two months before tip-off. New Butler, however, acquitted itself surprisingly well on Saturday. Brad Stevens’ team put in 30 minutes of Old Butler play against No. 1-ranked Duke before allowing lots of Matt Howard foul trouble, a 9-0 run, and a series of easy jump shots. After losing by 12, the 2010-11 Bulldogs are 4-3 to begin this season, as opposed to 5-2 after seven games last year. That one extra loss is magnified and expanded thanks to the increased national notoriety, but it’s a different team with a different statistical profile. For one,Butler has already given up more than a point per possession thrice, something the Bulldogs did only nine times in 38 games a year ago. Duke enjoyed 1.1 PPP efficiency on Saturday, a thoroughly un-Butler yield.
Whatever the Bulldogs do in the Horizon League and beyond in 2011 will be predicated on defense. If the national runner-ups allow 46 percent of two-pointers and 30 percent of threes to fall — as happened last season — they’ll be in decent elimination shape by March. (Current numbers: 48 percent and 28 percent.) Defense increases the margin of error for the offense, and Butler has not finished in the national top 100 in shooting percentage since the 2005-06 season. But what really made the difference during The Run, and endeared the team to millions of unaffiliated fans, was the way they did everything else. Take, for example, that team’s final win: the 52-50 national semifinal victory over Michigan State. Butler shot just 31 percent, got outrebounded, but turned the ball over eight times fewer than the Spartans did.
The key gap between mid-majors and the power elite is, unsurprisingly, money. Duke, for instance, spends $13.9 million on its men’s basketball operations (as per the U.S. Department of Postsecondary Education), while Butler spends $1.7 million annually. One way that a team like the Bulldogs can narrow that gap, and avoid from getting beaten elevenfold on the court, is to enter the currency exchange market. The rebound and the turnover have had floating values since long before the gold standard was abolished, and as colleague John Gasaway noted in a fine essay in this year’s dead-tree Prospectus, the “Incredible Shrinking Turnover” costs major-conference teams 1.28 points per incidence, on average. For small-conference teams who can’t really afford boards, reverse-hoarding turnovers is just good economic sense.
Butler 2009-10 finished with a pedestrian rebounding percentage of 51.3 (157th in Division I), and turned the ball over 18 percent of the time. Over March and April, the Bulldogs’ cough rate dipped to 15.9 percent. With primary rebounding threat Howard’s hind end perpetually attached to the bench by fouls, the Formula became ultimately important.
Butler 2010-11 is putting up similar ratios (55.9 percent rebound rate, 18.3 percent turnover rate), so the internal numbers are pretty solid. It’s far, far too early to panic about this team’s chances for another impressive postseason run. The defense is showing plenty of signs that its wounds will heal. It is not too early, however, to take a look at some other small-conference teams that fit the low-shooting, high-defense, turnovers-for-rebounds formula that the Bulldogs used to come just short of history.
Hampton (7-1, 1-0 MEAC) — The Pirates’ season opened on Nov. 15 with a seven-point loss at Wake Forest (they were down by three with 30 seconds left) that included a very Butler Formula-like structure: 31 percent shooting, minus-5 on rebounds, minus-10 in the turnovers column. Hampton has won every game since, a series that includes a roadie at George Washington (by 11), and neutral-court victories against Boston University (51-50) and blood rival Howard (67-55 at Madison Square Garden in the MEAC’s Big Apple Classic). Edward Joyner, Jr.’s team is one of the worst shooting squads in America (37.2 percent), but has a field goal defense of 32.9 percent (second nationally) to make up for it. The boardwork is pretty bad too (44.8 percent reb-rate), but that’s countervailed by a turnover rate of 16.1 percent. And as of press time, Hampton is seven points from a perfect record.
Virginia Commonwealth (5-2, 1-0 Colonial) — The Rams rarely shoot straight (43.8 percent) and are No. 293 in rebound rate (47 percent), but don’t turn it over (16.6 percent turnover rate) and force opponents into coughs on 23 percent of possessions. Add it all up, and Shaka Smart’s post-Larry Sanders squad has beaten two teams from the Big Six (Wake Forest and UCLA), and have lost their two drops by a combined six points to power-conference sides (Tennessee and South Florida). VCU, along with Old Dominion, is inspiring talk of a two-bid CAA, something that hasn’t happened since 2007.
South Dakota State (6-1, 0-1 Summit League) — This is the seventh year of D-I existence for the Jackrabbits, and the program has never posted an overall winning record, but Scott Nagy’s team has finally figured out how to hang. Before a Summit preview over the weekend against North Dakota State (an 82-75 loss), South Dakota State was just as undefeated as the SDSU out there in the Mountain West. And for a recent transitional, double-digit wins over Iowa and Nevada certainly aren’t cheap. The profile: 51.7 percent rebounding rate, 44.2 percent shooting percentage, .88 points allowed per possession… and a staggering 13.2 percent turn rate, the second best figure in the country (Brigham Young, 12.5).
Of successful teams that have turned the ball over 18 percent of the time or less, shoot 45 percent or worse, allow less than a point per possession and rebound at a rate of 55 percent or less, there are a couple of honorable mentions: Loyola of Chicago (7-2, 0-2 Horizon) and San Jose State (5-2, 0-0 WAC). Also, for what it’s worth, this formula fits BYU, Purdue, Texas and Syracuse as well.