- Kamar Baldwin's defense against Winthrop and Middle Tennessee was essential to Butler's Sweet 16 berth. But an assignment against UNC's Joel Berry II will be even more critical.
Think back to one week ago, when you were still hunting for upsets to fill out your bracket.
Two of the most popular Cinderellas were Middle Tennessee State and Winthrop. A quick Google search for “2017 NCAA tournament possible Cinderellas” will turn up numerous columns with both of those teams included, including one from SI.com in which four of six experts polled singled out the Blue Raiders as the double-digit seed most likely to advance to the second weekend.
All of those columns invariably mentioned two players when highlighting the virtues of Middle Tennessee and Winthrop: Giddy Potts and Keon Johnson. The starting point guards for those teams drove their potential. If Potts or Johnson got going, the higher seeds in their way—Butler and Minnesota—could be in trouble.
While so many were ready to anoint the Blue Raiders as the team to beat in the South Region’s 5/12, 4/13 pod, it was No. 4 seed Butler that emerged, thanks, in part, to the fact that it was the Bulldogs’ point guard who controlled the action in Milwaukee. In Butler’s first-round win over Winthrop, Johnson went just 7 for 19 from the floor, and 3 for 10 from behind the arc. In the second round against Middle Tennessee, Potts went scoreless for just the second time in his three-year career in a game in which he played at least 20 minutes, missing all eight of his field goal attempts. Add it up, and Johnson and Potts, two players who, combined, averaged 37.6 points per game on 45.4% shooting from the floor, scored 17 points while making just seven of their 27 field goal attempts. Going into the weekend, college basketball fans had learned a new name: Kamar Baldwin.
Butler is one of the oldest teams that advanced to the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs rank 63rd in kenpom.com’s experience factor, with their players averaging 2.05 years in school. Only Wisconsin and Michigan are more experienced. Six of Butler’s seven players who get at least 20 minutes per game are juniors or seniors. The team’s two leaders in points, rebounds and minutes are junior Kelan Martin and senior Andrew Chrabascz. Butler’s best three-point shooter is a graduate transfer, Avery Woodson. And yet, it was one of the team’s youngest players, a true freshman who turned 19 in September, who was its most important contributor in the first two rounds, helping get Butler back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011.
Baldwin had the primary responsibility for covering Johnson and Potts. In the win over Winthrop, Baldwin played 34 minutes, most of those spent living inside Johnson’s jersey. The Winthrop star may have scored 17 points, but he needed 19 shots to do so. Two days later against Middle Tennessee, Baldwin stuck with Potts for most of his 32 minutes and was the main reason Potts was held off the scoreboard. Most impressive of all, Baldwin did not commit a foul in those 32 minutes while shutting down one of the Blue Raiders’ best scorers. Oh, and Baldwin combined for 20 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals in the games.
“I just tried to make them take tough shots,” Baldwin said of his effort against Johnson and Potts. “It took the whole unit to keep those guys in check, and we were able to do that both games.”
It’s natural for Baldwin to deflect some of the credit, as Kethan Savage spent some time guarding both Johnson and Potts, and the Bulldogs used a zone at a few points in the win over Middle Tennessee. Anyone who watched those games, however, knew the player most responsible for shutting down the two most dynamic scorers Butler saw was the least experienced player on the floor, playing in the first and second NCAA tournament games of his life.
“[Potts] is a really good player. I think our guys just made him work, just tried to be where he was at, find him in the zone or man, had great awareness of him,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said after the win over Middle Tennessee. “He's a guy that can get eight, nine [points] on you in a real hurry. We didn't feel like at any time we really took him out of the game. We tried to stay as highly detailed with him as possible.”
Details will be crucial for the Bulldogs moving forward in this tournament. After being the favorite in their two games in Milwaukee, they’re the obvious underdog to reach the Final Four in the one region that was almost entirely chalk. Butler is the No. 4 seed in a region that still includes its top three seeds, No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 UCLA. The history of those three programs speaks for itself. The future, however, has yet to be written. If Butler is going to emerge, Baldwin will be at the center of that effort.
It all starts Friday against the Tar Heels. For Baldwin, this means another matchup with a high-level point guard. Like Johnson and Potts, Joel Berry II is a scorer who facilitates so much of what his team does offensively. Berry averages 14.4 points and 3.7 assists in 29.9 minutes per game. Like Johnson and Potts, Berry is his team’s best three-point shooter. That means Baldwin will again have to fight over the top of every screen while understanding how dangerous Berry and the rest of the North Carolina offense can be when he turns the corner.
According to Synergy Sports, Berry ranks in the 91st percentile in isolation, 89th percentile as a spot-up shooter and 79th percentile as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. Compare that with Potts (67th percentile, 95th percentile, 48th percentile, respectively) and Johnson (93rd, 94th, 79th), and it’s clear the individual matchup Friday will be just as last week’s showdowns. Add to the mix Berry’s superior teammates, however, and it easily ranks as Baldwin’s toughest test of the tournament. Baldwin will be ready.