One test down. One to go. The Cleveland State Vikings (21-3, 10-2, KenPom 47, RPI 27) took care of Valparaiso (16-7, 8-3, KenPom 86, RPI 52) yesterday at the Wolstein Center, and now they set their sights on Butler on Saturday afternoon. Butler (13-9, 6-5, KenPom 66, RPI 59) is reeling after a head-scratching and utterly inexcusable loss to Youngstown State yesterday. The win over the Bulldogs was just Youngstown State's sixth win of the year. They stand at 276 in the KenPom and 268 in the RPI.
For Butler to get back to any respectable shot at a top four finish in the Horizon and get their season back on track, they will need to win this game. But they come into Cleveland against a Vikings team that has won six straight and should have their biggest and loudest crowd of the season. It won't be easy; it's very possible Butler was looking ahead to this game, and got trapped by YSU. Even so, a Butler team that is used to making the NCAA Tournament does not and cannot lose a game like that.
Obviously, Butler begins and ends with Matt Howard. The do-it-all player averages 17.6 points, 8 rebounds, and shoots close to 50% (46% on threes). He is coming off a 4 for 13 performance against the Penguins, and for Butler to have any shot at beating the Vikings, he will have to have a big game. Butler also gets a lot of production out of Shelvin Mack (14.7 PPG, 3.6 AST, 4.6 REB), who is a heady player and a very good defender. He will match up against Norris Cole, who is arguably the best player in the Horizon League. Cole scored 25 against Valpo and is as locked in as he has been all season.
Butler's performance this season is hard to explain. Obviously Heyward's departure left a gap in scoring for the Bulldogs, but Mack and Howard, as well as Khyle Marshall and Ronald Nored were expected to pick up some of the slack for a more balanced offensive attack. And for the most part, that was working. Butler is the 31st more efficient offense in the country.
But defensively, they are worlds away from the team that went to the NCAA Finals a year ago. While last year they had the 5th best defense in the country, they have slipped all the way to 144, are forcing less turnovers and are allowing teams to shoot a 49.5 eFG%.That provides some reasoning for the losses to Louisville, Duke, Xavier, and to an extent, the road loss to Valpo. But what about let downs against Evansville, Wisconsin-Milwaukee (twice) and the Youngstown State game? These aren't games Butler drops. Last year, the worst team Butler lost to was UAB (64).
And with just seven games to play and 14 wins, there's a small chance Butler could miss the 20 win mark for the first time since 2005.
What can be said about Cleveland State that hasn't already been said this season? Despite claims that their schedule was too soft, they have played the 123rd toughest SOS in the country, which doesn't particularly stand out as a red flag. And they have beaten every team they were supposed to beat. Their three losses were all on the road, and are understandable losses (Butler, Valpo and West Virginia).
There's a reason this team is 47 in KenPom and 27 in the RPI. They're a very good basketball team. And if they are able to make it through the rest of this season with no bad losses and a semi or finals appearance in the Horizon League Tournament, there is a strong case that they should get an at-large bid.
But it starts with Butler. This might be the biggest remaining game of the regular season for both teams. If you're in town, try to get a ticket. If not, the game will be on ESPN2 and online at ESPN3.com.