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Butler team preview: Is Butler going to bounce back?

The Bulldogs aren’t that many years removed from being a top mid-major program with a brilliant coach. Now they’re in a power conference and have a head man struggling to keep them afloat. Are they headed down DePaul’s road?

NCAA Basketball: Butler at St. John
LaVall Jordan attempts to summon the spirit of Brad Stevens to aid his attempts to put together a decent strategy.
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Almost all college basketball programs are about one bad coaching hire from sliding to the cellar of their conference. Anybody old enough to remember Matt Doherty leading UNC to no postseason and then the NIT in his final two seasons at the school knows that even the most prestigious program is Steve Alford away from moonwalking right out of the spotlight. That’s why schools with the budget to do so routinely cull the top talent from the other 340 or so head coaches in the country.

For teams that aren’t pushing the mid-seven figures to their head men on a regular basis, identifying and securing coaching talent is vital. Butler has consistently done that, getting some good seasons out of Barry Collier, Thad Marta, and Todd Lickliter before peaking at Brad Stevens. Chris Holtmann carried the mail for three years before heading to Ohio State, leaving Lavall Jordan’s hands on the reins.

It hasn’t been an ideal transition.

Thanks in large part to talent Holtmann left behind, Jordan was 20th in the KenPom in his first season. Last year he nose dove to first-round exits in the Big East Tournament and NIT en route to a 16-17 overall record. The plummet wasn’t down to lost talent, either; Butler was 22nd in KenPom’s minutes continuity and ranked in the top 25 in the preseason by Pomery and Bart Torvik before falling over 50 spots in each metric.

Butler’s offense hit for spurts last year, but it was their defensive effort that really let them down. They finished 123rd in the nation in defensive efficiency and were 8th in conference play. In their final three games of the season - the Big East finale against Providence, the BET loss against Providence, and the first-round NIT exit against Nebraska - they managed to give up 243 points in 198 possessions, which is awful.

There is some hope, though. Gone from that team are Nate Fowler and Joey Brunk, two guys who combined to be 13’9” but couldn’t grab defensive rebounds or block shots, and Paul Jorgenson, who obnoxiously timed his best game of the year for Butler’s home finale against Xavier but was generally a turnstile on the perimeter. Those dudes all scored a bit, but - other than Brunk - they weren’t particularly efficient offensive players.

Brought in to fill those spots are some potential bright spots. Khalif Battle is a four-star SG who will give Butler a big, athletic slasher that their roster was crying out for. Closer to the rim, Derrik Smits is a 7’1” transfer center from Valpo who can not only provide a scoring option on the post but also give the Bulldogs a guy who can rebound at both ends and protect the rim. His usage rate at Valpo was 60th in the nation at a comical 29.7%; only three other guys 6’10” or taller were in the top 100. With a little less of the load to carry, he should improve on his 103.2 ORtg from last year. Milwaukee transfer Bryce Nze - a 6’7” PF who sat out last year - is a top-level rebounder. He’s a bit undersized, but - at 230 pounds when he last stepped onto the floor - he has the bulk to not get bullied.

All these guys will be slotting around three vital returning starters in PG Kamar Baldwin, and wings Sean McDermott and Jordan Tucker. Tucker is a great defensive rebounder, but his offensive game pretty much centers around his hunting jumpers. Despite being 6’7”, he shot 168 jumpers and just 33 layups/dunks last year. He was 50-134 (37%) from beyond the arc, which couples nicely with McDermott’s 73-180 (40.6%) to give Butler a pair of high-level catch-and-shoot guys to benefit from the slashing play of Baldwin.

Baldwin was Butler’s everything guy last year, ranking 6th in the conference in minutes percentage and 5th in usage rate. He spends enough time on the ball to be the point, but he’s really a volume-scoring combo guard pressed into service. His ball security is good, but he’s a mediocre distributor at best, and Butler’s offense suffers from a serious issue with the ball sticking (dead last in the conference with a 45.5% assist rate).

Having his offense be predicated in large part by his best player dribbling a bunch while four guys watch is the problem LaVall Jordan has to solve. He didn’t last year, and Butler finished tied for last in the conference with Providence and DePaul. The pieces are there this year to put together a more dynamic approach, but it’s not clear he has the wherewithal to pull the ball out of the hands of the only dude on the roster featured in the preseason Big East first, second, or honorable mention teams.

If Jordan can fold in Smits and Nze, unleash Battle, and shore up the defense while getting the offense consistently ticking over, Butler should be in contention for an NCAA bid. If he can’t, he’ll join Stevens and Holtmann as former Butler coaches without the concomitant pay raise they both received.

Why Butler can beat Xavier

Baldwin can get hot at any time and carry the team, as he demonstrated in going for over 20 on seven different occasions in Big East play last year. Couple that with the team’s assortment of viable three-point shooters - including a flex four in the mold of dudes who have consistently given Xavier problems in the past - and the Bulldogs have the pieces to threaten X if the defense can just hold serve. Play the game in their home barn with a malfunctioning clock and anything can happen.

Why Xavier can beat Butler

The Muskies have bigger, more athletic dudes almost across the board, and I think they have the coaching advantage in this one. Paul Scruggs shot 13-25/7-15/3-5 against the Bulldogs last year, and Naji Marshall was irrepressible against them when healthy. If Xavier’s defense begins this season like it ended last season, the three-point advantage Butler enjoyed can be nullified and the Musketeers can run riot.