There is a real opportunity sitting in front of the Milwaukee Panthers. Hinkle Fieldhouse, the site where Milwaukee kicked off its 12-game conference regular season winning streak, will be rocking on Saturday as the Butler Bulldogs try to get a leg up in the early Horizon League race. They see what we see; at 3-1 and 2-1, the Panthers and Bulldogs are not separated by much and Butler will do no worse than tie the first tiebreaker (head to head) with the Panthers. At 4-0 and 1-2, Milwaukee puts the Bulldogs in a big hole to climb out of and keeps the pressure on Cleveland State to keep pace. The Vikings play Youngstown State at 1 p.m. today.
The chance to go 4-0 with two of the hardest games of the Horizon League schedule behind them is a big deal for the Panthers. But the Bulldogs, as always, will try and thwart Milwaukee’s plans.
Sometimes it just takes a simple event for a team to really get it. Maybe it’s a discussion among team members about what they want their season to be. Perhaps a coach makes an impassioned speech and the players respond. It could be playing time; when someone isn’t clicking with the rest of the team, they might need to take a step back to really help themselves grow as well as the team.
For Butler, the game has really changed since Chrishawn Hopkins has seen his playing time dwindling. It isn’t a knock on Hopkins; it’s just a fact that the Bulldogs are better on both sides of the floor when he is out of the game. Following the Valparaiso loss, Hopkins’ playing time has dwindled considerably, and the Bulldogs have gotten better. In his first eight games, Hopkins played over ten minutes in all but one game. Since, he has played less than ten in four of six games. In games where Hopkins plays less than five minutes, the Bulldogs are 3-0 against Stanford, Purdue and Green Bay. If he plays more than five, the Dawgs are 4-7.
Beyond Hopkins, the Bulldogs are still up and down when shooting the ball. Their shooting percentage hit a recent high of 46.4% against Stanford (they eclipsed that plateau in the opener against Evansville and against Oakland City), but they haven’t been shooting like the normal Butler team shoots. Missing players like Zach Hahn, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard has done two things. First, taking away those good shooters automatically lowers your percentages. Second, the void of those players, specifically Mack and Howard, means that defenses haven’t had to commit more than the normal attention to any one player, so while Chase Stigall had much more free reign to take open shots last season, he’s not getting those open shots because defenses aren’t sagging off him in an attempt to stop pros that have now cycled out of the program.
The Bulldogs rely heavily on Andrew Smith to be a playmaker, and they’ve gotten a mixed bag. Some games he’s flourished, like he’s done against Evansville, Chattanooga, and Oakland City. Other times, he is a complete non-factor, as you can see in games like Valpo, Ball State and Gonzaga. But usually, you’re going to get the same kind of stats he put up last year, because in a lot of ways he’s just a guy. Thrust into the spotlight, he’s getting the same production he got when he was the fourth option offensively.
A big disappointment, at least from my end because I loved watching him in the tournament last year, has been Khyle Marshall. His production has been steady (9.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and he’s more efficient (55.2% FG, 33% 3PT, 55.7% eFG), but he hasn’t really taken the reigns like I expected out of him. Marshall is a wonderful athlete with a great upside, but like any player with upside that means he still has a ways to go. The sophomore still lacks the skills that will put him over the top in the future and make him an All-League candidate. The other thing about Marshall is that he’s struggled to defend this season, which has put the Bulldogs in a tight spot.
Look for Milwaukee to take advantage of Butler’s weaker interior by taking it right at Smith. If they can take the seven-footer out of the game, then they can really attack the inside and win the game that way. Playing an inside-out game threatens their stiff defense and stretches them out; this is why it pays to have even your big forwards shooting the three-ball, but I suspect James Haarsma will get most of his points in the paint.
I don’t know who is going to be the X-Factor to help the Black and Gold win. It could be anybody – Meier, Williams, Allen, Haarsma, Kelm, Richard, or Gulley – all have done it for the Panthers when others struggle. That’s what makes this team so good. By having a bunch of players who can play very well on any given night, the Panthers are a very difficult team for which to prepare; it’s like seven different kinds of smoke.