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Back to the Big East: Butler

Butler has a tough defensive pedigree dating back to Brad Stevens’ days leading the program.

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Butler Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

July 1 is right around the corner, folks. For most, that means next to nothing, unless you’re a die-hard *checks calendar* Rocket Mortgage Classic fan. For UConn faithful, it marks an official return to what can potentially be the best conference in college basketball.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, there are some new roommates to get acquainted with first. We’ve already caught up with the Skyline Chili Musketeers, so let’s head west on 74 to (re-)introduce the Butler Bulldogs and preview what the Huskies can expect from their canine counterparts this season.

What UConn fans have missed

The first thing that comes to mind for most Huskies fans when you say Butler basketball is ‘Brad Stevens,’ or ‘shooting 18% from the field in the 2011 national championship,’ or ‘Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot that almost destroyed Duke’s soul.’

Up until now, UConn fans have always associated Butler with the 2011 defensive meat-grinder that was the NCAA title game. Stevens and Hayward captured the hearts of basketball fans across the country with their underdog story, but Cardiac Kemba proved to be too much for the Bulldogs.

Aside: Can you imagine the look on your face if someone from 2021 came to you in 2011 — after the Huskies had just locked up title #3 — and said: 10 years from now UConn will JOIN Butler in the Big East conference, Brad Stevens will be coaching the Celtics, and their point guard would be Kemba Walker?

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Anyway, what have the Bulldogs done since?

Butler took advantage of their two-year Cinderella run from 2009-10 to 2010-11 and transformed into a nationally-respected basketball program. Historic Hinkle Fieldhouse is a gem, seating a raucous 9,100, and a bucket-list item for any hoops junkie. Their addition to the Big East in 2013-14 added the state of Indiana’s hoops-crazed pedigree to a conference already steeped in tradition and basketball lore. The fit could not be any better.

In its first seven years in the Big East, Butler has gone 143-88, making the NCAA tournament five times, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2017 against eventual champion North Carolina. There’s also a growing contingency of Bulldogs plying their trade professionally. Avid gamer Gordon Hayward finds time to moonlight as a star in the NBA for the Celtics alongside Kemba. Shelvin Mack has carved out a nice pro career for himself, and Kelan Martin was in the midst of a solid rookie season with the Timberwolves before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Head Coach LaVall Jordan

Butler is hardly just the house that President Stevens built. After Brad left to coach the Celtics in 2012, Chris Holtmann kept the ball rolling until he bolted for the greener pasture$ of Ohio State in 2017. In stepped Butler alum LaVall Jordan, tasked with following two great hires to keep the program going.

From 2015-2018, the Bulldogs were one of eight schools to win at least one NCAA tournament game each season and, even though they missed the tournament in 2019, Jordan had the Bulldogs sitting at 22-9 and a 5 seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology before the 2020 season came grinding to an abrupt halt.

Jordan, like his predecessors, has a reputation of squeezing everything he can out of his teams, like this 2019 squad that had been projected by Blue Ribbon to finish eighth in the Big East and make the NIT. He’s well-liked in the hoops world and is considered one of college basketball’s rising young coaches, as well as a great ambassador during the social moment of today.

Outlook for 2020-2021

According to the statistical geniuses at Bart Torvik, the Bulldogs were a balanced unit last year, ranking 25th and 46th in the country in offensive and defensive efficiency. First and foremost, they must replace last year’s leading scorer and go-to guy with the game on the line, Kamar Baldwin. In addition, Jordan must find replacements for four graduating seniors, three of which played a key role last year.

Sean McDermott (no, not that one) was a weapon too with his shooting and rebounding, while Jordan Tucker was a capable third wheel. All three players were three-point threats, and Big East coaches quickly hatched game plans trying to get the ball out of the trio’s hands. Baldwin and McDermott boasted the team’s highest BPM, and replacing their offensive production will be priority number one in 2020-2021.

Potential starting five

Aaron Thompson: The 6’2 guard led the Bulldogs in assists last season and is the team’s top on-ball defender. Butler runs most of its offense through pick-and-roll sets, and with the ball out of Baldwin’s hands, it will be on Thompson to get others open looks. A leader on and off the court, Butler will go as far as the D.C. native can lead them.

Jair Bolden: At his third school in four years, Bolden comes in as an instant impact grad transfer from South Carolina. The Brooklyn native began his career at George Washington then averaged 8 ppg last season while shooting 41% from three for South Carolina. He could give Jordan two ball-handlers in the starting lineup, or come off the bench as a microwave scorer. He has experience doing both as he started 15 games for the Gamecocks last season before ultimately settlling into a bench role.

Christian David/Scooby Johnson: The wing will be a position battle between the senior David and the freshman Johnson, the latter of which was Mr. Basketball in Michigan last year and turned down offers from Michigan State and West Viriginia. But don’t sleep on David, who hit a huge game-winner vs. St. Johns and was the second man off the bench before tearing his ACL in January.

Bryce yourselves for a confusing frontcourt that features senior and returning leading scorer Bryce Nze, while breakout junior Bryce Golden likely rounds out the starting five.

Nze: The undersized 6’7 physical bruiser is Butler’s top-returning scorer (9.2ppg) and rebounder (6.6rpg). He initially transferred in from Milwaukee (where Jordan previously coached) and will have to shoulder a larger scoring load this year. He’s the type of player UConn has both struggled against (think Markus Kennedy or any Cincy frontcourt bruiser) and at the same time coveted for the last 10 years, until Adama Sanogo answered our prayers.

Golden: The 6’9 big and former four-star recruit tripled nearly every statistical category from freshman to sophomore year, despite only logging 21 minutes per game. His two breakout performances came against top competition (Seton Hall, Villanova) and he will look to once again pair with Nze to fill the Big East’s frontcourt power vacuum left by the likes of Saddiq Bey, Tyrique Jones, and Romaro Gill.

The Bulldogs will lean heavily on the triumvirate of Thompson, Nze, and Golden, with a deep freshman class —led by Johnson, Chuck Harris, and Myles Tate — ready step in as role players. Butler turned in the #42 recruiting 2020 class in the country, good for 6th in the Big East. The program’s reputation is not forged on the recruiting trail with impact top-50 talent, however. Instead, its usually build by mining pipelines of underrated three- and four-stars that come into their own as upperclassmen (Golden fits that mold perfectly).

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The program also has a history of landing impact transfers, like coveted Eastern Tennessee State transfer Bo Hodges who will sit out this year before he’ll be allowed to play in 2021-22. If Hodges were to somehow achieve a waiver and play this year, he’d slide in at that wing spot and instantly make the Bulldogs a Big East contender.

The analytical 2020-21 outlook for Butler — at least according to Torvik — is not kind. The Bulldogs are projected to finish 8th in the Big East, with middling adjusted efficiency numbers clearly impacted by the loss of Baldwin and shooters like McDermott/Tucker. As the Bulldogs proved in 2019-20, however, these projections don’t mean a thing once the whistle blows and play begins.

From Stevens to Holtmann, and now Jordan, the unifying thread in the last decade has been ‘the Butler Way’ - a lunch-pail mentality that starts and ends with defense. Last year, the Bulldogs were tied for 12th in the country in points allowed and 22nd in field-goal percentage defense. So, while replacing Baldwin’s heroics will be the team’s national storyline next year, if the team can retain its defensive identity, expect the Bulldogs to sneak into the upper half of the Big East standings.