"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Butler Preview, 2022-23

Butler Bulldogs

Head Coach: Thad Matta (24-8 at Butler, 439-154 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 86.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 88.7

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 110

Projected Starters: PG Eric Hunter (6'4" RS Sr), SG Chuck Harris (6'2" Jr), SF Simas Lukosius (6'6" So), PF Ali Ali (6'8" Sr), C Manny Bates (6'11" RS Jr)

Chuck Harris leads Butler into the second Thad Matta era

Photo from Butler Athletics

In 2020, the Big East lost out big not only because they had three teams favored to make the second weekend, with Villanova, Seton Hall, and Creighton all projected as top-3 seeds, but also because Butler was headed to the NCAA Tournament as a likely 5-seed with similar second weekend aspirations. That tournament never happened, Kamar Baldwin, Sean McDermott, and Jordan Tucker all left, and LaVall Jordan was never able to reconstitute a tourney-caliber roster. They collapsed hard in 2022, going 5-13 after mid-January, though 6 of those losses were decided by two possessions or less. Jordan kept them competitive, but not competitive enough to keep his job. As a result, Jordan was fired and Butler brought back Thad Matta, the two-time Butler assistant who also started his head coaching career there with a stellar 24-8 campaign in 2000-01 that culminated in an NCAA Tournament bid and opening win over Wake Forest.

Butler fans will certainly welcome back Chuck Harris, who's expected to be the star of this team. The mercurial junior has shown the ability to take over games, but can just as easily vanish. His performances against Marquette are a great example of this, tallying 15 points and 5 assists in a win only to follow it up two weeks later with a zero point 0/6 performance where he had more turnovers than assists. He's joined by Simas Lukosius, a potent wing whose free throw success (90%) indicates he is a better shooter than his numbers from distance (26.5%) showed. They are joined by a trio of transfers expected to start. Eric Hunter joins from Purdue where he spent four years as a competent role-player. He's a strong defender who will help on the perimeter and is able to knock down open shots. Ali Ali is a 6'8" scoring forward with shooting ability and length but needs to be tougher on the glass if he wants to compete in the Big East. He also has shot-making ability. The prize of their transfer haul is Manny Bates, a shot-blocking machine who is a force on the offensive glass. In terms of being a defensive eraser, Bates had more blocks in 2019-20 season (83) than Butler has had as a team in any of the last five years. Jayden Taylor and Myles Tate are returners that give them depth in the back court while they'll hope transfer Jalen Thomas will lessen the dropoff when Bates needs a rest.

Historically, Matta's teams are great at ball control, both in terms of turnovers and pace. Their efficiency comes inside where he's had bigs like Greg Oden, Jared Sullinger, and Amir Williams. Slow it down, don't turn it over, hammer the ball inside where they have a size and strength advantage. On defense, his teams are excellent at challenging everything without fouling. If healthy, Bates is the perfect rim protector for his system. Draw teams in to the bigs, then swat everything in sight.

The biggest question may be Matta himself. He hasn't coached since he was fired from Ohio State in 2017 after missing consecutive tournaments for the first time in his career. Health was reportedly the reason he didn't return sooner, so it will remain to be seen how well he adjusts to getting back on the sideline is what has to be considered a high-stress job. And while his starting five looks competitive, depth is a question as they are try to fit a number of pieces together in a hurry. That said, if Harris looks more like his freshman self than last year's inconsistent scorer and if Hunter and Bates can provide steadying veteran experience, there's real upside here. Butler had some clear holes in terms of shot making and defensive length, and Matta addressed that in the transfer window. If everything comes together and they hit their peak, this could be a tourney team come March. Expect them to land in the middle of the Big East, somewhere in the 6-8 range where they spend the season bouncing around the bubble.

Marquette Memory: Few venues have been more a house of horrors for Marquette than Hinkle Fieldhouse was once Butler joined the Big East. Starting with the 2014 overtime loss, Marquette was defeated in five straight trips to Indianapolis, including second half come-from-behind Butler victories in both 2017 and 2018. Marquette came into Indy ranked #10 in the nation in 2019. Rather than Marquette's prolific offense, it was the defense that was on display. Butler was held to 25 points in the first half and managed just 0.85 points per possession for the game. At the other end, All-American Markus Howard poured in 32 points to pace Marquette. It wasn't entirely without drama, as an 11-0 Butler run in the second half got the margin down to 6 with ten minutes to play, but Marquette answered with a 12-0 run of their own and finally broke the Hinkle curse with a 76-58 win.

No comments: