"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, November 19, 2020

Butler Preview, 2020-21

Butler Bulldogs

Coach: LaVall Jordan (70-64, 59-40 at Butler)

3-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 41.3

3-Year kenpom Average: 39.0

2020-21 T-Rank Projection: 74

LaVall Jordan needs to find new production this year

Photo from IndyStar.com

Projected Starters: PG Aaron Thompson (6'2" Sr), SG Jair Bolden (6'3" RS Sr), SF Christian David (6'6" Sr), PF Bryce Nze (6'7" RS Sr), C Bryce Golden (6'9" Jr)

The Bulldogs started last season on an absolute tear, opening 9-0 before suffering their first defeat at Baylor 53-52. If anything, that closeness of that loss to a Baylor team flirting with the top-10 convinced people this Butler team was ready to compete. They ran their record to 15-1 and peaked at #5 in the country before the bottom fell out. They dropped three straight and eight out of twelve before a favorable closing schedule allowed them to finish 22-9 (10-8 Big East). The autopsy on last season would try to determine what was real, the brilliant start that had them as the #3 team over the first sixteen games according to T-Rank or the dismal finish that saw them play like the #64 team in the country over the last fifteen?

Any determination going forward will be have to be done without Kamar Baldwin, the stat-stuffing guard that always seemed to pop up with the clutch shot or defensive stop when needed. Also gone are sharpshooter Sean McDermott, wing Jordan Tucker, and a pair of bench contributors in Henry Baddley and Derrik Smits. While the starting lineup looks experienced on paper, most of these guys will have new roles. Aaron Thompson will run the offense and take the defensive task of the opposing team's best guard. Thompson is Butler's version of Derrick Wilson: solid defense, low usage, and can't shoot. Shooting from the backcourt will come from grad transfer Jair Bolden, who has been relatively productive at George Washington and South Carolina, but has never been an alpha scorer before. Christian David is looking to step up from a sixth man role. The front court pairing of the Bryces, Nze and Golden, was a solid but unspectacular pair last year. So who will lead this team? The best candidate might be Bo Hodges, a transfer from ETSU who would be a bit of a Swiss Army knife at the wing, able to contribute on both ends of the floor. If Hodges doesn't get a waiver to play this year, Jordan's bench will be stocked with unproven freshmen, the best of whom, Scooby Johnson, will miss the season with an ACL tear.

Jordan tends to run his offense through 1-2 higher usage players, grinding the pace to a snail's while repeatedly going to pick-n-roll. Bolden feels like the most likely to replicate what Baldwin tried to do. Don't be surprised to see the Bryces take significantly more offensive load. Nze is maybe the team's best all-around player. He's the guy that does all the right things but can go somewhat unnoticed. Golden is the highest usage returning player and could form an inside-out combo with Bolden. Where this team is likely to be best is on the defensive end. They suffocate teams inside and are great at team rebounding to limit second chances. Thompson is a great perimeter defender, though he'll need others to step up because Baldwin and Tucker were both athletic defenders.

Like so many in the Big East, this is a hard team to project. Offensively, they will likely struggle to score. I fully expect them to keep slowing the pace of the game, if only because getting into rock fights and keeping games close will be their best chance to win. While they have some experience, it's almost all role-players needing to step up without anyone proven, and while there are a lot of bodies on the bench, none of them are proven. The ceiling is probably landing on the right side of the bubble if Hodges gets eligible or someone can prove effective on the offensive end. If they can't find reliable scoring, however, this is a bottom half Big East team whose biggest danger to opponents will be keeping it ugly and close long enough to steal a couple games at the end.

Marquette Memory: While they wouldn't become conference mates until the next season, the 2012-13 season featured two meetings between Butler and Marquette. The first came in Maui, where the teams played a back-and-forth affair that looked to be going Marquette's way until a Junior Cadougan missed free throw with 8 seconds left allowed Rotnei Clarke to make a ridiculous off-balance, running, one-handed three pointer from 35 feet out at the buzzer to break Marquette hearts 72-71. I've always referred to it as the "puke shot" because Clarke just threw it up. Marquette did get a chance at revenge, however, in the NCAA Tournament. The teams met in the second round with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. The game was just as good, with Rotnei Clarke looking like the hero early after 18 first half points. Marquette had the answer, however, as Vander Blue took over late, scoring 19 of his 29 points in the second stanza. His three-pointer with 1:25 remaining tied the game at 69 as Marquette rallied from a 35-27 deficit at the half. Clarke was shut down in the second, scoring just 6 points after the break and with a 74-72 Marquette lead, it again came down to a shot at the buzzer. This time, a wild effort from Andrew Smith careened off the backboard as the buzzer sounded, allowing Marquette to complete their revenge en route to what would be an Elite 8 run.

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