Feast Week is here and it’s magnificent. Feast Week is always headlined by some of the bigger events on Thanksgiving Day, and the ESPN Events Invitational is trying to make a name for itself as one of those events. With an impressive eight-team field, this event is one to pay attention to.
Representing the Big East are the Butler Bulldogs, coming in with a 3-1 record, facing a Final Four team from a season ago in Florida Atlantic. The Owls come to Orlando at 2-1. Here’s where both of these teams stand early in this season, some key players/matchups and how this game goes down in this man’s (not so) humble opinion.
Spread: FAU -7.5
TV Network: ESPN2
Time: 2:30 EST
Venue: State Farm Field House in Kissimmee, FL
FAU started the season at 2-0, with a win over fellow Cinderella Loyola Chicago, and followed that up with a destructive 43-point win over Eastern Michigan. Then, the Bryant Bulldogs shocked the basketball world and knocked off FAU in what was Coach Phil Martelli Jr’s first official game as Head Coach.
Of note for the Owls, they return 12 of 13 players from last year's Final Four team, only losing Michael Forrest, who graduated. Not a single player from this team entered the transfer portal. This is still a very dangerous team, with tons of talent and guard depth.
As for Butler, they are in a completely different spot than the Owls, returning only three players, two of whom recorded minutes a season ago. Jalen Thomas is the lone returning starter, and even he only started 13 games a season ago for the Bulldogs. Butler brings in six transfers, headlined by their four leading scorers on this team (all averaging over 11.3PPG): Pierre Brooks, Posh Alexander, Jahmyl Telfort and DJ Davis.
The Bulldogs are 3-1 on the season, having defeated Eastern Michigan, Southeast Missouri State and East Tennessee State, all of which in dominant fashion, before falling to Michigan State in the Breslin Center last Friday.
Where Each Team Stands
FAU was able to remain in the AP Poll following their loss to Bryant at #19, however here we use the more reputable (I vote in it) House of College Hoops poll, where the Owls snuck in at #24, or the excellent ECB Poll (you’ll never guess who also votes in that) where the Owls hung on by a thread at #25.
As for Butler, their wins over their three cupcake opponents looked great. They were running the floor and overwhelming those teams with ball pressure. They looked great in doing so, but they beat the teams they were supposed to beat. In their next game which was a huge step up in competition, Butler was beat pretty handily by Michigan State.
If this new Bulldogs squad wants to prove that the struggles of the last few seasons are behind them, they have to look good in these high-level tests, and that’s exactly what FAU represents.
This may sound like déjà vu to Butler fans, but FAU was one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country last season at 36.6%, and is only shooting 33% this season. While those numbers are nowhere near as stark as Michigan State’s, when we look a some of FAU’s best shooters, we see that they aren’t converting at the rates that they normally do. FAU shot 5/30 from deep against Bryant, which would have marked their second-worst three-point shooting performance in all of last season.
Johnell Davis, their leading scorer from a season ago, shot 35.7% from three last season, but is only at 25% this season. Alijah Martin, their second-leading scorer from last season, shot 37.2% from deep, but is, like Davis, only at 25% this season. Nicholas Boyd and Bryan Greenlee were both 40% three-point shooters a season ago, but are at 33% this season. None of these numbers individually are huge drop-offs (with regard to the small sample size), but those guys are going to start hitting shots at some point.
Vlad Goldin has been the leading scorer for the Owls this season. Their starting five-man is averaging 15PPG and 6RPG, still shooting at that 63% clip that he was a season ago. Goldin was a huge part of their tournament run, particularly with his 14-point 13-rebound performance in their win over Kansas State in the Elite Eight (rhyming accidentally).
As for Butler, the defense has really stood out. The Bulldogs have the ninth-best two-point defense in the country, only allowing opponents to hit 39.1% of their two-point shots. Butler’s effective field goal percentage isn’t far behind (accounts for the fact that a three-pointer is more valuable than a 2-pt shot), ranking eleventh in the country at 39.6%.
The Bulldogs are also forcing turnovers on 21.4% of their opponent's possessions, ranking 56 in the country. In their three victories, the Bulldogs forced 18, 15 and 18 turnovers and were able to effectively score points off of those turnovers. Against Michigan State, Butler only forced 10 Spartan turnovers, converting only 12 points off of those turnovers. If the Bulldogs are going to beat these teams, they have to force turnovers and convert those into easy buckets on the other end.
The Bulldogs have a very balanced scoring effort, as mentioned above. Through four games, Butler’s leading scorer, Pierre Brooks, hasn’t led the team in scoring in any individual game. Instead, guards DJ Davis and Posh Alexander have each led the team in scoring once, while F Jahmyl Telfort has led the team in scoring twice.
Matchups The key matchup to this game in my mind is how FAU’s guards deal with Butler’s pressure. Butler’s offense thrives on getting out and running, and FAU’s guards are very experienced and don’t often turn the ball over. FAU ranked inside the Top 100 in turnover rate last season (fewest offensive TO’s), and currently sit at 75 this season; never having turned the ball over more than 15 times this season.
On the other end, FAU’s shooters just have to get going. If his team is going to reach the lofty expectations thrust upon them after their massive run, their guards have to get going. It’s fairly clear from watching them play a bit that Alijah Martin isn’t at 100%, and they need him badly. Their team thrives on the depth and all-around ability he brings to the table and when he’s not as explosive as he normally is, it really holds them back. They thrive on cohesiveness and all four guards on the floor at any given time being there and they haven’t had that this season.
I think Butler matches up much better against FAU than they did against Michigan State. Butler has guards who can pressure FAU’s ballhandlers and should be much more physical on the wings. Their wings, Pierre Brooks and Jahmyl Telfort, should be able to play some bully ball in this one and get to the bucket, creating for themselves and others when they get there. If FAU goes with their smaller lineup, having four guys on the floor 6’4” and below, Butler’s bigger, more physical wings should be in attack mode.
On the other end, Vlad Goldin is the best offensive big man Butler has faced this season. Jalen Thomas can definitely hold his own defensively, but both of his backups, Andre Screen and Boden Kapke, were in foul trouble early against Michigan State, and were taken advantage of in ball screens, something FAU runs a ton of. FAU will be hunting those matchups and will attack both Kapke and Screen at any point they can.
If Goldin is able to get going early, he represents a scoring big that Butler hasn’t been tested with yet. Goldin is able to score over either shoulder and is efficient inside.
Not only that, but FAU was one of the better rebounding teams in the country last season, ranking eighteenth in the country in rebounding rate. This season early on they rank 62, but easily represent Butler’s toughest test on the glass this season. That was something Butler really struggled with a season ago (353/363, second worst in high-major basketball only to Missouri), and something Michigan State was able to expose, as the Spartans won the rebounding battle 42-32. Butler will be tested on the glass, and has to respond.
Both teams present significant problems for the other, making this a very interesting game. The guard play on both teams should make this one fun to watch, as both Alexander and Johnell Davis play with something to prove. Both teams run a lot of four-out one-in offense, and will play intense pressure defense.
I think this is a good matchup for Butler, as their wings present real problems for FAU, which they struggled with a bit against Bryant, as Miami transfer Earl Timberlake, an uber-athletic 6’6” wing went for an efficient 13 points and 12 boards, playing all 40 minutes for Bryant.
At the same time, FAU’s guards won’t fold to Butler’s pressure. Those guys proved in the NCAA Tournament that they are ready for any moment, and I don’t think they will be phased by what Butler brings to the table. FAU should be able to control the pace and limit their turnovers, making Butler prove that they can score effectively in the half-court, something they didn’t do against Michigan State.
Butler is a slash-first offense, a team that really looks to get downhill and create opportunities from there. Not to be outshined by Butler’s two-point defense, last season, FAU’s 2-point percentage defense, with most of the same guys, ranked twelfth in the country. It hasn’t been as good this season, but I think this defense can still present some problems for Butler on the inside. Butler’s shooters will have to hit outside shots, and I don’t see many games where DJ Davis will shoot 1/6 as he did against Michigan State.
In the end, I think FAU’s veteran guards and team togetherness will reign supreme here, giving the Owls a much-needed victory in Orlando. Should be a close game throughout, but FAU seems to be a tough test for this newer Bulldog squad this early into the season.
Final Score: FAU 73, Butler 68
If you are going to talk about betting in my mind, you have to make this point painfully clear. It's ok to pass on a game. It's ok to just watch a sports game for fun, because at the end of the day, watching sports and an interesting game, or cheering on your favorite teams is fun. You don't have to bet everything, and sometimes passing on a play is better than watching it lose.
I have no strong lean on the side or total in this one, I think I want to take this game to learn more about each team. I want to know how they respond to the challenges the other presents, and if FAU has been figured out to an extent, or maybe Butler just looked really good against inferior competition, and the step up might just be too much.
I will be looking at player props, but one of the players I was targeting in his matchup, FAU's Johnell Davis, has a number that opened higher than I would have liked. 14.5 points is a lot for a guy who has broken that number in just three of his last eight games, even though I think his ability to get downhill could shine for the Owls.
If there's something that leaps out to me, I'll likely tweet about it.