When the final horn sounded in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, the Butler Bulldogs rushed the floor and mobbed Alex Barlow. This was with good reason; the previously unknown guard had rattled home the game winning shot only seconds before. It was a happy change of pace. Brad Stevens' team has spent the previous two hours mobbing Cody Zeller and Jordan Hulls.
The Indiana Hoosiers have one of the most potent offenses in college basketball, averaging 1.24 points per possession. Brad Stevens' squad, noted for its ability to make opponents play with one hand tied behind their back, held the Hoosiers to 1.05 points per possession. On Saturday, Stevens' team prevented Indiana from getting attempts at the rim and locked down Hoosier sharpshooter Jordan Hulls.
On the season, IU coach Tom Crean's offense has relentlessly attacked the rim, managing to get 37 percent of their field goal attempts from in close, and converting on 71 percent of these attempts. For context, the average Division I team gets about 33 percent of its shots at the rim, and converts 61 percent of these. When the Hoosiers go to the cup, they are better than nearly every other team — 71 percent shooting on shots at the rim places IU 19th in the nation in field goal percentage from in close. The Bulldogs wanted no part of that.
Much of the Butler defensive success on Saturday was due to cutting off Indiana attempts at the rim. Of the 63 shots hoisted by the Hoosiers, only 13 (or 21%) came at the basket. IU did well on these shots, going 11-13 from in close, but the damage was limited with so few opportunities. In particular, sophomore center Cody Zeller was not given many chances at the cup. On the season, Zeller has attempted 65 percent of his shot attempts at the rim, connecting on 70 percent. On Saturday, Zeller was 0-2 on shots at the rim. Two other Hoosiers who frequently get to the basket — Will Sheehey and Christian Watford — were each limited to a single attempt from in close.
Limiting opponent attempts in close is one of the strengths of the Bulldog defense, so it is no surprise that Butler was able to cut off the rim from Indiana. On the season, Bulldog opponents only manage 27 percent of their attempts at the rim. Butler's defense focuses on limiting opponent penetration, post entry, and offensive rebounds. These three factors all work together; missed layups are more likely to be rebounded by the offense than any other shot type, and offensive rebounds often turn into putbacks from close range. The Butler defense is a virtuous cycle, preventing penetration that leads to layups, which in turn reduces offensive rebounding chances, which in turn further limits shots at the rim.
Aside from protecting the basket, Stevens had a second problem on his hand against IU. By any measure, Hoosier guard Jordan Hulls is one of the most efficient scorers in the country. Hulls true shooting percentage (a composite number that weighs free throws, twos, and threes) is just under 70 percent, which places him 15th in Division I. Hulls does his damage on catch-and-shoot threes. The senior guard has taken two thirds of his shots from beyond the arc, and has made half of these shots. 88 percent of Hulls three pointers this season have come off of assists.
Hulls spent most of the game being shadowed by Butler guard Rotnei Clarke. Clarke's defensive assignment was to focus on Hulls, and to not help out defensively for anyone else. The tactic worked. Hulls went 0-2 from three point range, with most of his attempts coming as two point jump shots off of the dribble. Hulls went 3-8 on two point jump shots, and made his single attempt at the rim. He finished the game with a true shooting percentage of 36 percent.
Butler also limited Christian Watford's looks from three. Indiana's second best three point shooter went 0-1 from long distance. On the game, Crean's team only attempted 19 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc, well below its season average of 32 percent. With both the rim and the three point line cut off, the Hoosiers were forced into taking less efficient two point jump shots. 60 percent of Indiana's shots were two point jump shots, and they went 11-38 (29%) on these mid-range attempts.
When the final horn sounded, all eyes were on Alex Barlow. He deserves the attention. But the Butler defense deserves some attention, too.