(photo courtesy: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports)

Three Thoughts: Butler 79, Seton Hall 75

After the initial 20 minutes tonight against Butler, Seton Hall was confident.

The Pirates were feeling good before the game too – that’s what a top 25 ranking and a 3-1 record in Big East play will do for a team – but during that first half versus the Bulldogs, at home, with the student section at capacity, SHU’s offense was clicking.

The team scored 1.14 points per possession on a mix of Sterling Gibbs jumpers, Angel Delgado paint touches, and a bevy of second-chance buckets. But then, in the words of SHU coach Kevin Willard, Butler’s defense, which was absent for the entire half, “Did a good job of walling us up.” Those perimeter looks? Vanished as Butler switched how it guarded pick and rolls. Those attempts around the rim? The Pirates scored just four more second-chance points.

Seton Hall forced overtime thanks to the sheer will and the shooting acumen of Sterling Gibbs, but Butler’s defense completely deflated SHU in the final 25 minutes, and the Bulldogs defeated the Pirates, 79-75.

Here are several takeaways from the game:

1. Sterling Gibbs has evolved into an elite scorer

I am working on a feature about Gibbs’ progression and his offseason work ethic, so I’ll have more on this topic in the very near future, but Gibbs, despite being the defensive focal point of Butler’s gameplan, couldn’t be contained. The junior guard scored 30 points, converting six of his nine three-point attempts, and when Butler flat hedged to take away those open perimeter looks, he forced the Bulldogs to stop him and got to the stripe for 10 free throw attempts. “Sterling Gibbs is an outstanding player,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said.

Willard stressed that he will never tell his players to stop shooting, but he did mention in the postgame press conference that Gibbs’ ability to completely take over a game had an adverse effect against Butler. “We can’t get stuck with him doing it all. We have three guys out there that have to create for themselves and others at times,” Willard said. “We were too reliant on Sterling to bail us out at times during that second half.”

2. Butler’s defensive gameplan was near flawless

Even though Holtmann maintains he doesn’t talk about tempo with his team, Butler knew it had to contain the Hall’s transition offense. The Pirates are skilled at flaring the wings in the break and connecting from deep (38%).

The Bulldogs allowed just nine open-court points, and even though they ably crashed the defensive glass, grabbing two-thirds of Seton Hall’s misses, there were only two times the Pirates were able to convert a lay-up within the shot clock’s first few seconds.

That defensive execution came more sharply into focus during the second half. “They got a lot of what they wanted in the first half, and our guys realized that, and were frustrated, so they made a concerted effort to get better defensively,” Holtmann said. Specifically, Butler altered how they guarded the pick-and-roll.

The team mixed flat and hard hedges against the picks, leaving Delgado to roll freely to the basket (since they correctly knew SHU rarely hits its rolling big in stride), and then did a good job moving their feet while using their upper bodies to subtly move the SHU guards. “Their size bothered us,” Willard said. “They aren’t an overly tall team, but their length today did us in.” By tightly controlling the perimeter and preventing the Pirates from exploiting any defensive gaps Butler forced Seton Hall’s offense to become a bit stagnant. Part of that was the inability of anyone not named Gibbs to make a bucket – Brandon Mobley and Jaren Sina shot a combined 1-19.

3. Butler’s offense comes from their misses

During the presser, Willard praised Kameron Woods, Butler’s senior big, who had some “big rebounds” against the Hall. Woods has the fourth best offensive rebounding percentage in the Big East (12.4%, per Ken Pomeroy), and the 6’9” Woods hauled in 27% of the team’s misses versus the Pirates. Overall, Butler was difficult to push away from the offensive glass – the team corralled an astonishing 44% of their attempts, which Roosevelt Jones alluded was a percentage the team wanted to attain in Newark – and during overtime, Butler grabbed three offensive rebounds in a five second span. Overall, the team scored 19 points off extra possessions.

Delgado has proven to be one of the country’s best at limiting teams’ additional chances, but Willard mentioned the team has been too willing to let Delgado, and only Delgado, crash the boards. “We just didn’t rebound the basketball, and that has been an Achilles heel of ours,” said Willard. “They expect [Angel] to get every rebound, and when you play with a guy like him, you get a little complacent.”

4. A primer on how Butler successfully uses pick-and-rolls

Gibbs was the offensive lynchpin for Seton Hall, and conversely, Jones controlled Butler’s offensive flow. The junior missed last season with wrist injury, and since he rejoined the team, the Bulldogs have added a wrinkle to their pick-and-roll offense.

Jones relies on a pick more than any Bulldog – nearly 30% of his possession are the result of coming off a pick – but rather than go over the screen, Jones often rejects the pick and instead attacks the rim. Kellen Dunham, Kelan Martin, and Alex Barlow – the other three Bulldogs who are most often involved in pick-and-roll possessions – similarly go against the grain and away from the pick, and versus Seton Hall, Butler used this as an edge to get to the rim.

Dunham didn’t use the pick when he connected on that three to give Butler the first overtime lead, and Jones consistently got into the paint by getting that first step on the Pirate defenders: his first eight points in the second half were at the rim after a rejected pick. “He is a great paint touch guy,” Holtmann said. “He just keeps coming.” According to Hoop-Math.com, 73% of Jones’ attempts are around the bucket, which has to be the most for any guard nationally.