For a majority of the game, Duke’s rematch with the Butler Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon was eerily reminiscent of their meeting in the National Championship. A talent laden Devils squad that seemed, on paper anyway, to have a distinct advantage, met an incredibly tough minded and well coached team that simply refused to back down and never let Duke find much rhythm on offense or continuity on defense.
The Bulldogs used a very aggressive triangle and two defense in a calculated gamble, giving Duke numerous open looks from beyond the 3-point line, but giving them nothing on the interior while limiting Duke’s ability to execute the “drive” part of the “drive and kick” halfcourt offense that the Devils employ. It also limited Kyrie Irving’s ability to get to the rim, as he picked up two early charging fouls against well positioned Butler defenders. This strategy paid off in spades in the first half as Duke shot a woeful 3-14 from beyond the arc. On the offensive end, Butler was able to effectively nullify Duke’s dangerous and potent transtion game with an experienced and capable backcourt that controlled the tempo and committed only five turnovers in the first half. Duke’s defense was good, but the Bulldogs seemed to have a knack for hitting contested shots, while the Devils continued to miss open looks. It was an excellent job of coaching and execution by Butler, though, had the Devils shot anywhere near what they are capable of, the halftime score would have looked considerably different than 33 apiece.
Jay Bilas remarked ( several times) during the broadcast that this Butler team “looks like choirboys but defends like a motorcycle gang”. The accuracy of this pithy observation was born out in several ways in the second half. The same defensive agressiveness that prevented Duke from finding any offensive rhythm also got the Butler team in serious foul trouble that ultimately contributed to their defeat. The foul difficulty coincided with an outstanding Duke defensive run during which the Devils held Butler scoreless for nearly 5 minutes ( aided, in part, by the loss of Butler’s best offensive player, Shelvin Mack to quadriceps cramps. ouchy.) At the 14:35 mark, Butler’s leading scorer, Matt Howard went to the bench with his 3rd foul and was followed at the 13:04 mark by Ronald Nored, their best defensive player, who picked up his fourth. Mack hit the pine at 12:48 and was closely followed by their best 3-point shooter, Zach Hahn, who picked up fouls 2-4 in a remarkable 45 seconds. This left only one Butler starter on the floor and forced Butler coach Brad Stevens to put Howard back in. Duke went on a 12-0 run during this stretch, and essentially put the game away, albeit in undramatic fashion Butler refused to quit, helped by the strong bench play of Shawn Vanzant ( 14 pts on 6-10 shooting) and stayed within shouting distance of Duke from the 10 minute mark until the end.
This game, like K-State, was essentially won at the foul line, with Duke shooting 24-29 ( including a brilliant 13-14 effort from leading scorer Nolan Smith, who had been shooting inexplicably poorly from the line this season) while Butler shot a miserable 10 - 20. Not to be understated, though, were the contributions of 1)Kyrie Irving, who put up 17 of his 21 points in the second half, as he took advantage of the foul and injury plagued Butler backcourt 2) Andre Dawkins, who scored 10 timely points and led the team in rebounding with 8, as he took full advantage of his 32 minutes and 3) Kyle Singler, who, after getting in early foul trouble and playing a pretty subpar game for a preseason POY candidate, came up with 2 critical buckets keying Duke’s 12-0 game salting run.
Statistically this game was about as even as it gets across the board, with the only real differences coming at the foul line and the 3 point line ( Butler 8-15, Duke 8-24). Duke showed for a second straight contest that it can beat a really good team without its A-game ( which is encouraging, but I’m ready for a little A-game action again, myself). Butler dropped to 4-3 on the year, but proved that they are once again going to be a team to be reckoned with both within the Horizon League and at the end of the year. Just like Duke, the team on the floor is a precise reflection of the integrity, intelligence and will of the head coach and Butler has themselves a good one. One can not help but wonder if Gordon Heyward had stayed, whether we would be talking about a third rematch come April.