There comes a time in every team’s season where the players on the roster make an unconscious decision. Either they continue to work the way they’ve been working, accept the status quo and take their allocated dosage of lumps, or they begin to work harder, make a stronger concerted effort to right the wrongs of the season and make their way into the light.
Last year, after absorbing yet another significant double-digit loss, the Milwaukee Panthers sat in a hotel room in Indianapolis and made a conscious decision to make the rest of the season their own. You know what happened next.
Tonight, the Milwaukee Panthers stand on their home court, across from their familiar foe. It was these Butler Bulldogs that represented Milwaukee’s first victory in a line of ten conference triumphs that led all the way to the conference championship game. Then, it was these Bulldogs again.
On our court. Taking our bid to the NCAA Tournament.
I will never claim that the Milwaukee Panthers would have made it all the way to the Final Four this past March, but they certainly looked better than the national runner-up in two of three games.
It’s a much different team. Gone are Shelvin Mack and Zach Hahn, Matt Howard and Shawn Vanzant, the nucleus of two Final Four teams. Their replacements aren’t achieving at the level that Butler fans have come to expect, but they are far from a rebuilding program.
Andrew Smith has come into his own, scoring 10.6 ppg and pulling down 5.8 rebounds per contest. He is shooting 52.4% from the floor, a number that proves defending him is much more difficult than it used to be. He is much more consistent down low in the post, and he’s a stronger player than he was while playing Matt Howard’s wing man.
Roosevelt Jones, the 6’4” freshman wing, is an extremely athletic and talented player who handles the ball beyond his age and can make you pay with his ability. Jones scored six points against Milwaukee in Indianapolis, but he was very much the difference-maker in a first half that was quickly turning into a blowout in favor of the Panthers.
Kameron Woods is a player that doesn’t get a lot of publicity around the league, but he should. He is undoubtedly the best stopper of Butler’s younger talents, able to play strong man-to-man defense in the block or towering zone defense with longer arms.
The 6’6” forward Khyle Marshall may be the best player on the court for the Bulldogs. Marshall, who burst out onto the scene in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, is a banger in the block who shoots at a high percentage because he just doesn’t take dumb jump shots. Marshall is shooting 55.9% from the field, scoring 9.2 ppg and pulling down over four rebounds per game. His weakness at the free throw line is what’s keeping him from becoming a real dominant player – his 48.5% free throw percentage would fit into Milwaukee’s roster unfortunately well.
He doesn’t shoot from beyond the arc, and that’s probably the biggest difference between this Butler team and those of the past – they just aren’t a great shooting team.
In the past, when guys like Howard would get eaten up on occasion, other players stepped up – Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant each had 20-point games against the Panthers. Hahn did it from beyond the arc, but no one on Butler’s squad really does that.
Ronald Nored and Andrew Smith are an identical 13 of 32 from the three-point arc, which means they’re shooting 40.6% but also means that they’re not shooting much from out there. Chase Stigall was a bomber early in his career, but since becoming the Dawgs’ main threat from the outside is only shooting 30.2% from three.
This Bulldogs team relies instead on higher percentage shots – drives to the lane and inside scoring – and takes care of the ball like we’re accustomed to seeing from Butler.
To win this game, Milwaukee has to take care of the ball. They can’t be loose with it, even though they might try to push the tempo a little more to get better open shots for Tony Meier and Paris Gulley. They need to get the ball into Haarsma and Kelm – putting Smith in foul trouble is a must, because the Bulldogs just aren’t the same with him out of the game.
Most importantly, though, they need to rise to the occasion. Milwaukee’s perfect back nine in 2011 was due to the team believing in themselves night in and night out, making every game a mission and a winning result the primary objective.
Tonight, that needs to be the case once again. Milwaukee needs to put the Bulldogs in their crosshairs and take a shot at redemption. The season is far from over, there is still much work to do – and the work begins tonight.