The Arkansas Razorbacks are making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 1996. Their opening matchup, however, is against one of the better programs over the last decade, the Butler Bulldogs.
Arkansas enters the tournament as one of the SEC’s record eight representatives. Butler is tied with Providence for the lowest seed (No. 10) among the Big East’s six teams in the field.
East Region: No. 10 Butler (20-13) vs. No. 7 Arkansas (23-11)
Time: 3:10 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Little Caesars Arena (Detroit)
Keys for Butler
The Bulldogs love to take quick shots in transition and use a lot of pick and rolls to set up their offense. Butler is one of the better shooting teams in the country, making 47.2 percent of its attempts (48th), even though it’s not shy of firing it up from long range (23 3-point attempts per game).
The Bulldogs don’t get to the free-throw line as much as their opponents, but they make the most of those opportunities. Butler is 20th in the nation from the charity stripe at 77.1 percent. The Bulldogs also do a good job of taking care of the ball (+3.0 turnover margin) while creating turnovers (14.2 per game) on the other end.
Keys for Arkansas
The Razorbacks are one of the nation’s best teams when it comes to protecting the rim, thanks largely to the presence of Daniel Gafford. The 6-foot-11 true freshman is averaging 2.1 blocks per game this season. Since Butler has a knack of making its shots, Gafford’s ability to make life more difficult in the paint could force the Bulldogs to take more difficult mid- and long-range shots. Should that happen, Arkansas needs to limit any second-chance opportunities and also make sure any shots don’t get off uncontested.
On offense, the Razorbacks will need Jaylen Barford (18.0 ppg) and Daryl Macon (16.9), first- and second-team All-SEC honorees this season respectively, to continue to carry the bulk of the scoring load.
Arkansas is at its best when it scores a lot of points. The Razorbacks are 17-1 when scoring 80 or more, 6-10 when scoring fewer than that. Butler is averaging 79.1 points per game, so Arkansas needs to push the temp and take advantage of its long-range shooting. The Razorbacks are 12th nationally in 3-point percentage (40.1), while the Bulldogs have struggled when it comes to defending beyond the arc (37.1, 296th).
Butler is the slight favorite on Friday, but Arkansas appears to be well equipped to matchup with the Bulldogs thanks to the Razorbacks’ strengths on offense (shooters that score from all ranges) and defense (rim protection). If Butler cannot hit its shots early on, the Bulldogs could be in for a tough time.
Prediction: Arkansas 78, Butler 69
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of @RazorbackMBB)