It’s been a fun season in Hinkle Fieldhouse. It’s also been far too long since I’ve published anything on this basketball team, so what better time to change that than right now?
The Butler Bulldogs will welcome the California Golden Bears to Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. Here’s where both teams stand, and a look at exactly what California is bringing to the table.
Spread: Butler -8.5, O/U 147.5
Time: Noon EST
Location: Historic Hinkle Fieldhouse
The Butler Bulldogs
As most of you reading this know, Butler has started the season at 7-2, with notable wins over Penn State, Boise State and Texas Tech. Their lone losses of the season come at the hands of Michigan State and Florida Atlantic.
The Bulldogs have been a surprise in a loaded Big East conference, and have surged up analytical rankings as a result. The Bulldogs have put together a very successful non-conference campaign to this point, and would put themselves in a very good position if they are able to knock off California.
The Bulldogs have four guys averaging double figures, including their wings, Pierre Brooks and Jahmyl Telfort, who combine to average 32.6PPG. The wings on this team have been nothing short of spectacular, and have shouldered an impressive scoring load this season.
What California Brings to the Table
California completely overhauled its basketball program this offseason. The Golden Bears fired head coach Mark Fox after four unsuccessful seasons at the helm and brought in former Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves big man, 2x NBA Champion Mark Madsen.
Madsen, who played his college ball at Pac-12 rival Stanford, was the Head Coach at Utah Valley for the last four seasons, where he led the Wolverines to an NIT semifinal, the best season in school history. Madsen made Utah Valley a consistent winner at the mid-major level, which is an incredibly impressive feat, and earned him WAC Coach of the Year last season. Madsen is an excellent coach.
The Golden Bears have not hit the ground running, and have started the season at 3-5. Cal brought in four transfers who were expected to play huge minutes, those guys being Fardaws Aimaq, Jaylon Tyson, Jalen Cone and Keonte Kennedy. Kennedy played in his first game of the season in their last outing against Santa Clara, and Tyson was in a struggle to get a transfer waiver that he absolutely deserved. Two of their key returners, Devin Askew and Jalen Celestine, both have only played in the first three games of the season. Those two are guys to monitor on the injury report.
California was a team I hyped up a ton this offseason. I think I maybe expected a little too much cohesion too soon, but this is still a team that I think is better than the 167 ranking they have on KenPom. That said, in honor of full transparency, here’s what I, and my colleague Chris Thedinga, said on our show Dinga and Derosa over the summer (shameless promo I know, but it's a good show, I swears. Plus, no other national CBB show talks about Butler as much as this one.).
There’s certainly a chance that I am overrating this team because I liked them in the offseason.
We talked about California a ton this offseason, and both of us really liked this team entering the season. However, they have had some really tough losses, losing buy games to a really bad Pacific team and to a Montana State team that just recently lost to a school called “Rocky Mountain.” California also got last in their preseason tournament, losing to both UTEP and Tulane.
The Golden Bears have looked much better in their two most recent performances, taking San Diego State to overtime on a neutral floor, and following that up with their best win of the season beating Santa Clara by 15 a home, a Santa Clara team that knocked off both Oregon and Stanford this season.
California’s Key Players
California is not a very deep team. Like at all. They have a few very legit talents, and the drop-off from those guys is very steep. Here are their three most key players, who all average over 16PPG:
Jaylon Tyson, Forward
Tyson is a transfer who came over from Texas Tech, and was one of the most efficient players in the country, even on a very poor offensive team. Tyson has been as advertised in his time at Berkley so far. He’s averaging 20.4PPG, 8.6REB and 3.1AST, shooting 47% from the field and 33% from three. Tyson was a 40% three-point shooter last season on top of his impressive three-level scoring threat, he’s a real matchup nightmare for any team trying to contain him.
He can score in isolation situations, off pindown screens, on the block, or in catch-and-shoot situations. He’s an incredible talent, and unlike anyone Butler has ever faced. Tyson has the second-highest usage rate of any player in the Pac-12, and that mark would be the highest of anyone in the Big East. The ball will be in his hands all game long.
Fardaws Aimaq, Center
Aimaq was with Madsen at Utah Valley, and eventually met up with his coach Mark Madsen at California. Aimaq is a walking double-double, averaging 16.5PPG and 10REB a game, recording a double-double in five of California’s eight games. He’s a balanced scorer, someone who’s a legit threat on the block, but also a big man who can space out and efficiently knock down a three-point jumper, shooting 54.8% from the field and 36.4% from three. He’s a dominant scoring threat and a ferocious rebounder, despite largely being a below-the-rim threat.
Jalen Cone, Guard
The Northern Arizona transfer nearly led his team on a Kemba Walker-like run to the NCAA Tournament. Cone is an excellent scorer, who averages 16.3PPG this season. He’s a microwave scorer who could go for 30 on any given night. In their most recent win over Santa Clara, he shot 7/10 from three-point range. Cone can really get it going on any given night.
This is a legit 1-2-3 punch, but the Golden Bears have struggled to get sustained production from anywhere else, partially due to injury. Keonte Kennedy played his first game against Santa Clara, and both Askew and Celestine have only seen the floor in three games, and may also miss this game (or not, I haven't found any current information, for full disclosure).
I think there are two matchups that are really intriguing in this matchup.
Jaylon Tyson vs Jahmyl Telfort/Pierre Brooks
Tyson is easily the most talented wing that Butler has gone up against. He presents a rare combination of size, skill and athleticism that Butler hasn’t faced yet. I’m very interested in seeing how Butler looks to defend him, and if they give the assignment to either Brooks or Telfort. Tyson has struggled with turnovers this season, I’m interested to see if this Butler defense can force Tyson to make mistakes.
On the other end, I think Brooks and Telfort will get theirs offensively. Against San Diego State, Reese Dixon-Waters, a 6’6” G/F led the Aztecs in scoring with 24, ten points more than his season average. I think all of Tyson, Brooks and Telfort will be able to effectively score in this one, and am very interested to see who wins the battle of the wings.
Posh Alexander vs Jalen Cone
This would mark the first time that Jalen Cone has gone up against a defensive stopper like Posh Alexander. Cone has been a much-needed bucket-getter for this California team, crossing the 20-point mark in three games (Cal is 2-1 in those contests). That said, this is likely the toughest matchup Cone has faced all season, aside from maybe San Diego State, which was a game he really struggled in (2/14 FG, 1/9 3PT, 8pts, 6reb, 5ast).
Meanwhile, Alexander has been tested against some really excellent guards this season. He’s gone up against Tyson Walker, Ace Baldwin, Tyson Acuff and Pop Isaacs/Joe Toussaint. This isn’t a new challenge for him, and one he will take eagerly. If Alexander can pressure Cone into tough shots and control the pace of this game, I think that favors Butler greatly. Alexander’s quickness and physical strength are a huge advantage over Cone, I think that that will really factor into this matchup.
California presents some real matchup problems for Butler’s defense. Aimaq and Tyson in particular are tests that Butler hasn’t yet faced. Aimaq presents real problems for Butler. In Butler’s lone other matchup against a nationally heralded big man, Vlad Goldin had 18 points and 7 rebounds, and FAU dominated the glass. Aimaq is better than Goldin. I tried to think of a more eloquent way to phrase that, but I’ll just decide to be straight up. Aimaq is one of the best big men in the country, and is someone who needs to be taken seriously. Butler will have to be aggressive on the glass.
However, there’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Cal’s defense yet. It’s terrible. Nationally awful. They have not figured it out on that end, and of their starters, Cone and Aimaq are guys you can take advantage of defensively. They don’t have the athletes or cohesion to be respected defensively. The Golden Bears foul a ton and do not force turnovers. They are in the bottom 60 nationally in turnovers forced and bottom 120 in foul rate. Their opponents can get to the line and convert, and are also efficient from both inside and out. Opponents are shooting 34.5% from three this season, which ranks 239th in the country.
One final note on Cal’s defense that I found particularly interesting is that they have the ninth-lowest assist rate allowed in the country, which means they are mostly getting beat in isolation and might be a step slow to help. Since their first two games against Pacific and St. Thomas, no California opponent has had more than 10 assists. Pacific and St. Thomas both had 14 assists, which was why they both were more competitive with Cal than expected, including Pacific securing the upset. So, if California can make Butler isolate that could make the game tougher for the Dogs, but if Butler can move the ball, this one could get ugly.
Both offenses should be impressive, this should be a high-scoring game. Butler will need to be physical on the glass against Aimaq and Tyson, who combine to average over 18.5 rebounds per game. Butler should be able to keep control of the ball, avoid turnovers and score efficiently on this California defense, including often from the free-throw line.
I think California will get theirs, but I think Butler’s offense is the best unit against this game, going against the worst in California’s defense, and that matchup is more than enough for Butler to take this one.
Butler 90, California 76
This is an important note. Don't know how much it factors in, but it's probably important.
Also, this likely will be the first game in Hinkle I miss this season. Will be gone from this one until I return from break. Hopefully, Hinkle is packed though, because this Cal team should not be slept on. They will improve in Pac-12 play, trust me on that.