Andrew Smith Shows His Importance to Butler’s Long-Term Fortune

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 9th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC correspondent. He was in Evanston for Butler’s 74-65 victory over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night. You can follow him @ChrisDJohnsonn

The biggest weak spot in Butler’s season body of work entering tonight’s game at Northwestern was a road defeat at Xavier. It was the Bulldogs’ second game of the season, and their only true road test. It was hard to know what to make of that result, mostly because Xavier itself remained something of a mystery. But over the next four weeks, as Butler notched impressive victories over Marquette and North Carolina at the Maui Invitational, and handled three consecutive home tune-ups against Hanover, Ball State and IUPUI, the perception lingered – however faint – that Butler needed to prove itself in a hostile road environment before drawing a long-term prospectus about the Bulldogs’ chances of competing in the new and improved Atlantic 10.

The Bulldogs dominated the paint against Northwestern, with Smith leading the charge en route to his best performance of the season (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Those doubts all but evaporated at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night. Butler showed the poise, savvy and steadfast discipline that’s come to define Brad Stevens’ recent wave of national success. More importantly, it flashed newfound strength on the low block, a physical disadvantage that’s limited Butler in recent seasons against athletically superior teams. Senior center Andrew Smith had scored the ball at an efficient rate through the early part of the season, posting a 114.0 offensive rating and a 55.1% effective field goal percentage, but his usage rate (19.6 percent of available possessions) ranked behind two teammates and his main priorities typically hinged on defense and rebounding. Smith proved Saturday night he’s more than capable of carrying the load offensively. “I thought he played his best game of the year,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said following the Bulldogs’ 74-65 victory in at Welsh-Ryan Arena. “We needed every bit of it.”

To paint a complete portrait of Smith’s 24-point, 10-rebound night, any discussion of an opposing big man’s offensive performance against Northwestern must make mention of the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 zone, which leaves more open space – and on principle, is vulnerable to savvy interior passing, which guards Rotnei Clarke and Alex Barlow provided in droves – on the low block than most conventional defenses. The 1-3-1 is designed to stifle the perimeter, and in that regard, the Wildcats were effective in limiting the likes of Clarke and Kellen Dunham. Butler’s backcourt duo finished with a combined 24 points, but the Wildcats largely executed their primary defensive goal: run Clarke and Dunham, two of the nation’s best long-distance marksmen (who combined for just five three-point makes), off the free throw line and force the Bulldogs to manufacture its offense out of the low post.

As Smith proved with eight offensive rebounds, countless easy putbacks and one thunderous fast-break dunk with just over 10 minutes remaining that stretched Butler’s lead to nine and deflated Northwestern’s comeback effort, the Wildcats’ misjudged the senior center’s offensive potential, along with his ability to control the glass against an inexperienced frontcourt. Senior guard Reggie Hearn, who followed up his 17-point, 10-rebound game at Baylor by going 3-of-10 from the field with 13 points and six rebounds, seemed particularly concerned about the latter point. “We’ve been maligned for rebounding the past few years,” a defeated, downtrodden and bruised (Hearn was knocked to the ground on consecutive trips up the court midway through the second half) Hearn told reporters. “We didn’t hit the boards like we should have, especially in the second half. That hurt us.”

Much was made entering this season of Northwestern’s newfound frontcourt heft, with players like redshirt freshman Mike Turner and true freshman Alex Olah expected to step into large roles. Olah entered Saturday night’s game having improved the Wildcats ability to crash the glass, his 22.8% offensive rebounding percentage ranking 98th nationally, but against a shrewd low-block operator like Smith, Olah was no match. Turner likewise struggled with Smith for large stretches. Whether or not the bigger frontcourt amounts to anything in the long-term will loom over NU’s Tournament chances as a historical reminder of recent history, and Saturday night proved the Wildcats – even with major cosmetic upgrades on the front line – have not yet laid to rest their low-post shortcomings.

The 1-3-1 limited Butler’s perimeter offense. What it didn’t do was account for Smith’s tremendous low post play. That’s a testament not only to Smith, but to the Wildcats’ inability to make in-game adjustments. “It’s the first time you really see a 1-3-1 this season that’s really extended. It put us on our heels,” Stevens said. “Andrew Smith came up with huge rebounds. That’s sometimes what you give up when you’re extending like that. Andrew was pretty forceful down in there.” The Bulldogs biggest concern afterward was packing up and boarding buses back to Indianapolis as soon as possible. “We’ve emphasized getting home quick with the week ahead,” Stevens said. That week will be critical as it pertains to Butler’s preparation for its hardest game of the season. Securing your first true road win of the season is a significant step, and it removes any remaining skepticism surrounding the Bulldogs’ early-season defeat at Xavier. The Bulldogs needed to prove they could win on the road; mission accomplished.

The next task brings no measure of relief. In just seven days, The Bulldogs will take on the #1-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in the Crossroads Classic. As preparations go, the Wildcats – despite what Stevens may lead you to believe – aren’t exactly a carbon copy of the nation’s No. 1-ranked efficiency offense, nor do they have a lottery pick center, precocious freshman point guard, and arguably the best cast of complementary pieces of any team in the country. We learned a great deal Saturday night about the Bulldogs’ ability to evolve offensively and exploit tactical weaknesses. We’re about to learn a lot more about Butler when they face the national front-runner Hoosiers. Stevens knows what he’s up against. “Indiana does run some of the things Northwestern runs offensively,” Stevens said. “Indiana is the No. 1 team in the country. If it’s not unanimous, I haven’t seen anybody better. They are outstanding.”

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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