A Battle Of The Mid-Major Elite: Zags Host Butler

Over the past two seasons, the Butler Bulldogs have reached a level of success that all but two programs in the entire country would dream to have. While Duke and UConn won the past two National Championships, it was the Butler Bulldogs that earned a spot in the National Championship game in both seasons. While Gonzaga has had an extended run of elite play, it should be worth noting that Butler has maintained an incredibly high level of play without having the coaching staff continuity that the Zags have been blessed with. However, under head coach Brad Stevens, BU has gone from a mid-major darling to an elite program.

The Butler program has been built on toughness and elite level performance on the defensive end of the court. While Gonzaga has struggled in some big games because of offensive struggles, Butler was able to create NCAA Tournament success because its defense allowed it to stay in any game. Brad Stevens does an excellent job identifying talent and putting his players in roles that will allow them to succeed.

With that said, this Butler group isn't at the level of the past two years. There are new surefire NBA players like Gordon Hayward or Shelvin Mack. Part of the reason that Bulter was able to make such tremendous runs in the NCAA Tournament is because they had great talent paired with a great coach. This year, the Bulldogs still have the great coach, but the talent isn't quite there.

Khyle Marshall is arguably the most talented player on the BU roster, and the sophomore forward has improved thanks to an increased role. Marshall averages a team-high 10.4 ppg, and along with Andrew Smith, is one of only two guys to average in double-figures. The offensive struggles for Butler are fairly staggering, as the Bulldogs average only 65.7 ppg and shoot only 39% from the field as a team. To put that into perspective, the season-low for Gonzaga this season is 67 points, which has occurred twice this season.

While Butler has some size in the paint, it really has no one that can matchup with the length and athleticism that the Gonzaga frontcourt can offer. I would expect to see Butler use the previously mentioned Andrew Smith to try and slow down Robert Sacre. Smith is a fundamentally sound big guy, who lacks explosiveness but will play Sacre physically. However, this game should be another chance for Elias Harris to shine, and I would hope the coaching staff would make a concerted effort to continue to feed him the ball following his tremendous performance against Arizona.

If this game had taken place in either of the past two seasons, it would be one of the marquee games on the Gonzaga schedule. While there is no question that Brad Stevens will have his team prepared (if you can't tell, I have a Tom Izzo sized man-crush on Stevens), and that they will play hard, the reality is that if this Gonzaga team plays with the same urgency it did in the Battle In Seattle, it should coast to a victory. The Zags have a unique opportunity to continue and build confidence and a rhythm to the rotation before a marquee matchup with Xavier at the end of the year. Although it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Gonzaga come out flat, it seems that the coaching staff has this team heading in the right direction, and I expect to see a 69-52 win.

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