Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Butler

And now he's gone.

Hate is a strong word, so I'll just go ahead and say that I won't miss Matt Howard at all now that he's a Butler graduate. Butler Bulldogs fans, on the other hand, will probably look back on Howard's tenure with the team with great affection. Why wouldn't they? He was part of an improbable run to the National Final as a junior and then - after some of the talent on that team departed for the NBA - part of an even more improbable run to the National Final last year. Though this basically makes him the Jim Kelly of college basketball, there's no denying that Butler's recent success has made them the envy of every non-BCS program in the nation. The departures from last year's team make this season's iteration of the Bulldogs less likely to succeed, but you could have made the same statement in good faith twelve months ago, too. We saw how that turned out.
 
Coach/style:
A big part of the continued success of the Butler program has been credited to Coach Brad Stevens. After six seasons as an assistant, Stevens took over for Todd Lickliter for the 2007 - 2008 season and has amassed an impressive 117-25 record since. Butler has won the Horizon league every year under Stevens and won the league tournament three times in that span. Stevens won't be 35 until later this month, and his bio reflects a myriad of age-related coaching distinctions. He is also two-time Horizon League Coach of the Year, presumably for all age brackets.

His Bulldog teams have been methodical, never posting a pace higher than 277th in the nation. This measured approach has brought success at both ends of the floor, with Butler rarely straying out of the top 50 in AdjO or AdjD. Offensively, the Bulldogs have never been great at getting to the boards under Stevens, but they've always taken care of the ball (22nd in TO% last year) and aren't shy to chuck it from the cheap seats (always top 50 in the nation in percentage of FG attempted from behind the arc). On defense, they lock down the perimeter pretty effectively and keep opponents off the glass (top 40 in the nation in preventing offensive boards in each of the past three years). The Bulldogs have been consistently sub-par at blocking opponents shots in Stevens' tenure, and they were 334th in the nation in that department last year.
 
Departures:
Obviously, Matt Howard is gone. Much like Wes Mantooth to Ron Burgundy, I found myself not liking him while still having some respect for his abilities. His 16.4/7.7/1.4 on .471/.398/.792 will most likely be missed by the Bulldogs. For odes to how impressive it is that he got that much production while being physically limited, look elsewhere. I'll let it be enough to note that Howard was 71st in the nation in ORtg and 73rd in fouls drawn per 40 minutes last year.  Gone too is Washington Wizard Shelvin Mack. He stepped up to post 16.0/4.5/3.5 while shooting .408/.354/.769 last year before bolting for the greener pastures of the NBA lockout. While on the court last year, Mack took 29.4% of his team's shots and assisted 24.9% of their made buckets. When he was on the court, the offense ran through Mack.
 
Compounding the impact of those departures is the graduation of Shawn Vanzant. Vanzant posted 8.1/3.4/1.7 on .441/.404/.736 shooting last year and was third on the team in assists and minutes. Reserve guard Zach Hahn has also moved on, taking his 4.9 PPG and .857 FT% with him. Butler returns this year without three of their top four scorers, their top three players in minutes, two of their top three rebounders, and two of their top three assist men. Other than that, it's the same basic team.
 
Returnees:
So who did come back? Well, 6'11" rising junior center Andrew Smith seems positioned to take a larger role in the team this year. He posted 8.5/5.6/0.6 while shooting almost 60% from the floor in 23.9 minutes per game last year. Xavier fans will recall how Kenny Frease's conditioning and minutes both continued to improve as the big man became acclimated to the college game; Butler no doubt hopes for the same from Smith, who was the team's most statistically efficient offensive player last year. Khyle Marshall - a 6'7" rising sophomore forward - returns as well; he had a high usage rate and was also the team's most efficient offensive rebounder as a freshman. He also averaged 5.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes, which isn't good.
 
Guard Ronald Nored will be a senior this year; his offensive numbers - 5.0/3.2/2.3 on .392/.278/.632 shooting - are somewhere between unimpressive and poor, but he is a defensive menace who specializes on making the lives of opposing guards miserable. Chase Stigall provided 16 minutes per game as a backup guard with a positive A:TO last year, but he is going to have to seriously improve his .329/.320/.500 shooting line to expand his role going forward. Various other, less used pieces from the 247th deepest bench in the nation also return.
 
Incoming players:
Coach Stevens and his staff have been busy filling in the hole that have appeared in Butler's roster due to the aforementioned departures. The gem of their incoming class is 6'4" small forward Roosevelt Jones out of Illinois. Weighing in at 210 lbs, Jones has a powerful, college ready body that - coupled with his athleticism - enables him to be a scoring threat on a straight line to the bucket as soon as he steps on campus. He's active on defense and on the glass, but his shooting could use some work. Australian point guard Jackson Aldridge continues the trend of recruits named after presidents; more pertinently, he is a scoring guard with consistent deep range. Aldridge excels in transition, but his decision making ability could use some work.

Kameron Woods is an athletic power forward out of Kentucky who stands 6'8". At only 180 pounds, however, he weighs about as much as Kenny Frease's left leg and will need to hit the weights and possibly the cafeteria to consistently bang with the big boys. Woods has the offensive skills and athleticism to work outside of the paint while he bulks up. Indiana native Andy Smeathers rounds out this year's recruiting class for Stevens and his staff. The 6'6" forward stands out for his shooting ability. He has good court vision and passing ability, but also needs to add some lbs to become a consistent competitor in the NCAA game.
 
Outlook:
Butler seems to be a team that will be in a down year this season after losing four players who combined for over 100 minutes per game. Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall both have the chops to lead the team in the frontcourt, but someone is going to have to step up on the perimeter for the team to keep its NCAA tournament streak intact. A talented group of freshman comes in with a chance to make a difference right away, but the development of Nored and Stigall will probably determine the direction of the Bulldogs this year. Stevens has proven he can succeed with NBA talent; he has a tougher task cut out for him this season.

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