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What to Watch For: Butler at Creighton

Conference play is so back. Oh, it’s awesome. And here we’ve got two teams looking to avoid an 0-2 start, as the Creighton Blue Jays take on the Butler Bulldogs in Omaha. Here are some things I’m watching for, followed by my prediction.


Kalkbrenner’s Status


Ryan Kalkbrenner is Creighton’s most important player. Not just because he was the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, but he’s also Creighton’s leading scorer. He’s a reliable post presence, leading the entire country in field goal percentage at 76.2%. He’s an excellent player, and without him, Creighton just isn’t the same.

In the last three games (shoutout teamrankings.com for literally listing all this data and making my life so much easier), the ones Kalkbrenner has missed, Creighton’s offensive efficiency has gone down from 1.054 to .926 and defensively they’ve also gotten worse, from .955 to .997. This isn’t adjusted for opponents, but they played Arizona, Arkansas, Texas Tech and Texas, four surefire tournament teams before his injury.


Ok, numbers and nerd stuff, but what does all of that mean? With all of those numbers being based on 100 possessions, Creighton is +9.9 points per 100 possessions across the entire season and -7.1 points per 100 possessions over their last three games. A 17-point difference!

Need more context? Creighton is 77th in non-adjusted offensive efficiency this season. .926, their rating from the last three games, would rank T295, tied with the Marist Red Foxes, a 4-6 team from the MAAC. Defensively, they are at .955, which ranks 105th. Their last three-game rating of .997 would rank T184, tied with San Jose State and Columbia. For context, this season San Jose State lost by 41 to Arkansas and Columbia lost by 40 to Rutgers. So yeah, they’re much worse over these last three games.


Keep in mind, I wasn’t going through the trouble to calculate Creighton’s numbers before Kalkbrenner’s injury, so the discrepancy in these numbers is even wider than I showed. Probably by a lot, too. The data from the last three games makes their season-long data worse.


So, long story short, Creighton needs Kalkbrenner back and isn't nearly the same team without him.

So, this happened as I was writing this, and yeah that’s big. Huge. I’m not sure of his effectiveness in this one, but 60% Ryan Kalkbrenner is still very good.


Three-Point Shooting


Both teams will need to get it going from the three-point line in this one. Generally speaking, this is any game, but hear me out on this one.


Creighton hasn’t been as effective from the three-point line as they’d like to be this season, but they still attempt a ton of them. Creighton is 30th in the country in most threes attempted per game, attempting 26.2 three-pointers per game. They’re only converting them at a 33.4% clip, 175th nationally, but in their biggest wins of the season against Texas Tech and Arkansas, they shot 9/20 (45%) and 7/14 (50%), respectively.


Interestingly in both, they were well below their season average in attempts but were well above their season percentages. Regardless, when Creighton gets going from deep, they can compete with anyone.

For Butler, they don’t attempt nearly the same amount of threes (20.1 per game, 249th nationally), but they’re shooting the ball well this season, ranking inside the top 100 at 35.7%. In Butler’s four losses, however, they were 21.7%, 21.7%, 30% and 21.4% from deep, totaling 19/80 or 23.75%, which would rank second-last in the country. Compare that to their eight wins, where they have shot 67/161, 41.6% from the long-range, which, funnily enough, would rank second in the country.

This Butler team is just so much better when they’re getting these outside looks. The parallels in shooting in their wins and losses are massive. This team needs to be shooting well from outside to compete.


Defense


This was something I found really interesting, that I don’t think has been brought up anywhere. Butler and Creighton are incredibly similar teams on the defensive end. Both teams give up a ton of points from the two-point range (61.9% of Creighton's points allowed are from two, compared to 61% from Butler), not much from three (28.3% of Butler’s points allowed are from three, compared to 28.2% from Creighton) and both teams never foul. Butler averages the fewest fouls per game in the country at 11.9, Creighton is just behind them at fourth, averaging 12.8.


These teams are basically identical defensively, at least in how opponents attack them. There are some significant differences in what these teams do well, however. Butler is the much better team at defending the three-point line, ranking inside the top 60, as opponents shoot 29.9% from deep. Compare that to Creighton, who has opponents shoot 34.7% from deep, ranking 221st. Creighton rebounds the ball incredibly well on the defensive end, ranking 10th in the country in defensive rebounding rate at 80.5%, compared to Butler who’s 202nd at 72.8%.


Creighton is excellent at limiting you to one shot, whereas Butler has been the better first-shot defense this season (granted, they’ve also played a worse strength of schedule, so these numbers are skewed), but doesn’t rebound nearly as well.


Butler’s Health


Butler has used a six-man rotation for the majority of the season, mainly because they’ve had to. However, Ali Ali and Jalen Thomas both returned last game, for their first minutes of the season. Both were clearly being brought back slowly, not playing as much as they were expected to at the beginning of the season, but in their few minutes, they looked alright.

You have to be happy for Jalen Thomas, who returned following a pulmonary embolism. He only played three minutes, against Adama Sanogo of course too, but still, you have to feel good for him. As for Ali, he played a very good first half and gave Butler an offensive spark they couldn’t find elsewhere. Only Bates, Chuck Harris and Simas Lukosius scored more than six points, and all three of them played 36+ minutes.


DJ Hughes and Myles Wilmoth both returned during the California game, and didn’t play in the conference opener against UConn.


Butler’s finally getting healthy, for the first time all season.


Prediction:


Man, this isn’t an easy game to predict. It was going to be pretty straightforward until Ryan Kalkbrenner decided to potentially play, which throws a wrench into this whole section. I just have no idea how much Creighton gets out of him, and I don’t know how much Jalen Thomas or Ali Ali play.


So much of this game depends on how well each team shoots from deep, and Butler has been better team from deep, so far. However, Creighton is just due for some positive regression, as KenPom lists them as the 357th luckiest team in the country, aka sixth unluckiest.


Butler is much worse against teams who are much better athletically and much longer than them, that’s really the easiest way to Butler. I don’t think that’s Creighton. That’s why I don’t hate this matchup for Butler. Eric Hunter has had a couple of rough games (really the four losses, minus NC State where he played well), and has not had back-to-back bad games, though granted those were against St Francis (PA) and BYU, not nearly at Creighton’s level defensively.


On our stream yesterday (check it out! Though my lighting makes me look like a complete goof), I said Butler loses close, and I’m going to stick with that. The travel to Omaha for Butler, the late notice addition of Kalkbrenner, the momentum Creighton could potentially build and the talent in Creighton's backcourt could be just enough. If I had to predict now, I’d think these teams split the season series, so I’d lean towards the home team in both games.


I’m not too confident though. As of the time of me writing this, the ESPN win probability is 23.5% and the Vegas Probability is close to that at around 26.7% (it’s going to change over time), and I’d think that’s low. With all of these variables at play, I’d say it’s closer to 35-40% than either of those. I could also look really stupid here (wouldn’t be the first time) and this game is just a blowout, but hey who knows?


Creighton 74, Butler 72



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