NCAA tournament Sweet 16 preview: Butler and Wisconsin are steady, like their coaches

Butler’s Brad Stevens versus Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. Two careers, decades apart, steeped in basketball tradition and with well-earned reputations for success. A preview of the eighth-seeded Butler Bulldogs versus number four seed Wisconsin Badgers in a Southeast Regional game tonight at the New Orleans Arena, 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan watches his players during practice for a Southeast regional semifinal game in the NCAA college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 23, in New Orleans. Wisconsin plays Butler on Thursday.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Butler head coach Brad Stevens points to his players during a practice session for their NCAA Southeast regional college basketball semifinal game Wednesday, March 23, in New Orleans. Butler plays Wisconsin on Thursday.

Brad Stevens has spent a lifetime in basketball. Born in 1976, he spent his high school years at Indiana’s Zionsville Community High School where he set four school records. Stevens then attended DePauw University where, in addition to excelling on the school’s hoop team, he was an academic All-American in economics.

He was prepared to spend a career in management at Eli Lilly & Co. until an opportunity came to serve as a volunteer assistant at Butler University in Indianapolis. In 2001, he was offered an assistant coaching position under head coach Todd Lickliter, and in 2004 became their head coach. In his first year, Stevens had 30 wins and has never looked back. Last year, he took the Bulldogs to the NCAA national championship game, where they finished second to Duke University.

Bo Ryan is also a basketball prodigy, having been born outside of Philadelphia in 1947 and starring as a point guard under his father and coach Butch Ryan at Chester High School – where he led the school to a 25-1 record his senior year. He lettered in multiple sports, including basketball, football and baseball. He then matriculated at Wilkes-Barre’s Wilkes University, where he also excelled at point guard.

Ryan's love of the sport inspired him to coach at several schools in Wisconsin, including Dominican College of Racine, Wisconsin-Platteville and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as he amassed an impressive winning percentage. He became head coach of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000 after the retirement of his predecessor, Dick Bennett – a tall order, as Bennett had in the past season brought the Badgers to the Final Four. Ryan has since gathered over 200 wins and has won over 73% of his games overall.

Tonight’s “Sweet Sixteen” matchup between Butler and Wisconsin promises to be an exciting showdown – with this year’s Horizon League champs sporting All-Horizon forward and Connersville, IN native Matt Howard, who, at 16.7 points per game, has been critical first in winning the Horizon League title and then Butler’s first two wins of the NCAA tournament. Butler is a scrappy team that plays tight fundamental basketball and, though they aren’t a particular tall squad, are quick, with solid point-scorers in Howard and guard (and fellow All-Horizon League member) Shevlin Mack (15.6 points per game).

Wisconsin is a stacked Big Ten conference powerhouse with strength inside and out. Shevlin Mack versus Wisconsin’s outstanding guard Jordan Taylor will be a pleasure to watch; but “Mack the Knife” will be supplemented by the defensive wizardry of guard Ronald Nored, who is curiously underrated on defense. The Badgers’ power forward Jon Leuer will probably be started against Butler’s center Andrew Smith, but also will likely rack up big minutes against Matt Howard – as both are post-up specialists. Leuer’s advantage here will be his ability to stay out of foul trouble – he hasn’t fouled out of one game this year, while Howard has left four early.

I like Butler tonight because of several material and intangible factors: first is Wisconsin’s abysmal turnover percentage – they’re first in the nation in this category. Also, they had a horrific showing in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, losing to Penn State while scoring only 33 points – the lowest in tournament history.On the other hand, Butler is noteworthy for its ability to hold better teams to under sixty points on a regular basis – due largely to the efforts of Nored (1.3 steals per game).

Lastly, I find that Butler’s Brad Stevens is a more balanced coach on both sides of the ball. Ryan’s Badgers may be second in the nation in overall offense, but won’t be able to get over the hump with offense alone. Regardless, this game will be close and will probably rest on defensive mistakes rather than offensive gems. That’s why Butler advances.

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