WHEN: January 19th, 9:00 PM EST
WHERE: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Since 1999, there have been two mid-majors that have dominated the college basketball world like nobody else. Gonzaga, which has gone to the past 14 NCAA Tournaments, ranks among the most consistently successful programs in the entire sport and for years were the standard by which all other mid-majors were judged. Butler, however, has taken the torch, as their runner-up finishes in the 2010 and 2011 NCAA Tournaments created a new standard and turned the program into the new darling of college basketball.
Saturday’s matchup will be just the third-ever battle of the Bulldogs, with Butler winning the first game 79-71 in the 2006 NIT Season Tipoff and Gonzaga winning last year’s game 71-55 in Spokane.
Mark Few has built some serious powerhouses during his time at Gonzaga, but this year’s Bulldogs squad might actually top them all. Gonzaga’s roster goes eleven-deep, and the Bulldogs’ collection of big men in the post matches up favorably with any team in the country. This gives Gonzaga the ability to beat teams simply by wearing them down over the course of the game.
Center Kelly Olynyk has demonstrated that his decision to redshirt a year ago was a smart one, becoming the focal point of the Gonzaga offense and leading the Bulldogs with 18.3 points per game. Forward Elias Harris, who has seemingly been in the program for the past decade, chips in 14.6 a game and is versatile enough so that he fits in seamlessly in either a big or small-ball lineup. Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. share ballhandling duties, while swingman Guy Landry Edi rounds out the starting lineup as a versatile defensive presence. Few also has supreme confidence in Gonzaga’s bench, with six different Bulldogs averaging at least 10 minutes a game.
Gonzaga annually plays a renegade non-conference schedule, with West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, Washington State, Kansas State, Baylor, and Oklahoma State highlighted among this year’s victims. Only Illinois was able to take on Gonzaga and come away with a win. The Bulldogs have already won in both Pullman and Stillwater, so do not expect them to be fazed by the hostile environment of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
This year’s squad plays a markedly different style than the great Butler teams of recent years, as Brad Stevens’ crew has scrapped the run-and-gun style for a more methodical pace that emphasizes hard-nosed defense. The Bulldogs tend to play primarily with a six-man rotation, though they have enough size on the bench to ensure they are not easily overpowered down low.
Rotnei Clarke has been a revelation in the backcourt, as the transfer from Arkansas leads the team with 16.3 points per game and rates among the nation’s finest from beyond the arc. Unfortunately for Butler, Clarke suffered an injury in the Bulldogs’ recent win over Dayton and will not be in uniform against Gonzaga. Alex Barlow has seen his minutes increase at the point, while Roosevelt Jones leads the team in assists and does a little of everything to help the Bulldogs win. Down low, the post combination of Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall combines for 22.5 points and nearly 11 boards a game. However, the wild card of the Butler attack is sixth man Kellen Dunham, a freshman swingman who returns to the starting lineup in place of Clarke and is a potential nightmare matchup for Gonzaga defenders.
Butler’s 88-86 overtime win over then-top ranked Indiana is on the short list for the best games of the college basketball season. The Bulldogs also have victories over Marquette, North Carolina, and Vanderbilt, making this team as battle-tested as any in the country. Strangely enough, one of Butler’s two losses on the season was to the very same Illinois team that defeated Gonzaga back in December.
One thing is for certain: the Bulldogs are guaranteed to win this game. Whether it is the Gonzaga or Butler variety depends on which team can set the pace. If Gonzaga takes control of the paint early, it could be a long night for the hometown team; if Dunham has an inspired game in him, Butler should be happy at the end of the evening.
Where To Watch Online: No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 Butler