When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, UConn athletics will be back where they belong in the Big East. Of course, this Big East isn’t exactly the same as when the Huskies were last members, so we caught up with writers who cover schools in the new Big East to get the lowdown on how things are going.
For this edition, Kevin Urquhart, the Butler writer for Big East Coast Bias, took some time to answer some questions on the new conference and the Bulldogs.
Note: these questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
What have the last seven years been like without UConn in the Big East? How do Butler fans like it compared to the Horizon League/Atlantic 10?
The Big East is brutal. There is no other way to put it. Every single opponent is capable of beating you on a given night (as evidenced by the fact that Butler was pummeled by DePaul on one occasion last year). In the Horizon League, there were two or three opponents that you had circled on your schedule. The rest of the teams you expected to beat. In those days, Butler didn’t have to worry too much about earning an NCAA Tournament bid because they expected to just win the conference tournament. The A10 was better, but still nothing compared to the current Big East.
These days, every win is cause for celebration and Butler fans find themselves obsessively referencing experts’ projected brackets to know what the Bulldogs need to do to make the field. On a couple different occasions, Butler has come into a season looking poised to compete for a conference title, and on every occasion they have been bullied back into the middle of the pack.
For Butler fans and the program itself, what’s been the biggest adjustment to playing in a Big East conference that perennially ranks as one of the nation’s best?
The biggest adjustment has been confronting the talent level that exists in the Big East. The much-praised “Butler Way,” consists of playing fundamentally sound, intelligent, tough basketball. In the Horizon League and the A10, this style of play was good enough to ensure victories in almost every game. In the Big East, you can play this way and still lose because not only are some of the other teams in the conference also very fundamentally sound, but there is exceptional talent in the league.
Butler has had to improve its recruiting methods, getting top talent when possible and finding the diamonds in the rough the program is famous for. The Bulldogs’ 2021 class is its highest-ranked recruiting class ever. Additionally, in order to succeed in the conference, Butler has to commit more than ever to the Butler Way and make sure they bring it every single night. They have lost many conference games over the last few years because they had a sleepy start and got so far behind that a comeback was impossible.
What was your fanbase’s reaction to the news that UConn was rejoining the Big East?
There isn’t a ton of history between these two teams (apart from the 2011 national championship), but I think Butler fans were stoked to hear that UConn was joining the league. I know I was.
The Big East is still a power conference; anyone who says otherwise is mistaken. But the re-aligned conference doesn’t always get the love and recognition it deserves. Adding a program like UConn lends more credibility to the Big East and helps conjure images of the Big East as it used to be.
I think Connecticut and Indiana are pretty similar in the sense that basketball is without a doubt the most popular sport, especially at the collegiate level. Indiana is loaded with big-name programs and former players - where do you think Butler currently ranks amongst all of the programs in Indiana?
This is a very difficult question because all four of the major programs in Indiana (Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, and Butler) have been on a bit of a roller coaster the last decade or so. Purdue has probably been the most consistently successful of late, although the Boilermakers had a down year last year. I think I would place Butler second behind Purdue at this moment, even though Butler did defeat Purdue in the Crossroads Classic last year.
The Bulldogs have qualified for the NCAA Tournament in nine of the last twelve seasons in which a tournament was held, despite having four different coaches and changing conferences three times over that span. They were also poised to be selected for the 2020 tournament, which is more than can be said for Purdue or Notre Dame (according to Joe Lunardi’s final Bracketology of the season). Indiana would have squeaked in according to Lunardi.
UConn and Butler have only met once before - the 2011 national championship (which everyone hates on but I thought it was pretty great, to be honest). Even though it’s been nearly a decade, are Bulldogs fans excited to have multiple opportunities a year for revenge?
Let’s be clear. No amount of regular season wins against an opponent constitutes revenge for a National Championship defeat. Additionally, for Butler fans, the sting from the 2011 title game pales in comparison to the devastating blow that was the 2010 title game against Duke. I doubt that revenge will be much on the mind of the Butler faithful.
That being said, as mentioned above, the opportunity to rub shoulders with another historically elite program and potentially beat them on a consistent basis is one Bulldogs fans will relish. It’s an interesting juxtaposition – a program that has spent the last few decades slowly trying to establish itself as an elite program vs. a four-time national champion program that has stumbled upon hard times and is looking to regain its former glory.
In 2018-19, Butler missed the tournament and lost in the NIT but looked primed to bounce back in 2019-20 before the season came to an abrupt halt. What did head coach Lavall Jordan do to get things back on track, and can the Bulldogs keep the momentum going for this coming season?
This could be a bit of controversial take, but I think LaVall is bringing back the Butler Way that was lost under previous head coach Chris Holtmann. The program was successful under Holtmann, but his style was dramatically different from the tough, defensive style of Brad Stevens and his predecessors. Even as the team continued to win, I had concerns about where it was leading. In LaVall’s first season, after Holtmann’s departure, the Bulldogs had a good year mostly because they had Kelan Martin, one of the best Bulldogs in recent memory. But after Martin left, the Bulldogs no longer had the talent to make up for the toughness they had lost.
LaVall was the perfect guy to bring in because he is an old disciple of the Butler Way. He played for Butler back from 1997-2001 and was on the Butler coaching staff alongside Stevens under head coach Todd Lickliter. Little by little under Coach Jordan, the team has shown a little more toughness, a little more defense, and a little more teamwork. They will need these attributes more than ever this next year with the roster turnover from last season.
Butler won’t return three of their top four scorers - Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott graduated, while Jordan Tucker declared for the NBA Draft. Aside from leading returning scorer Bryce Nze, who do you expect to step up this year?
The significance of losing Baldwin and McDermott cannot be overstated. Not only were they great players and contributors, they were seniors and the unquestioned leaders of the team. Tucker played a less significant role on the team but was a prime candidate to take over a lot of the scoring responsibility left behind by Baldwin and McDermott.
Aaron Thompson will continue to be the defensive leader on the team and the prime offensive facilitator, but he will need teammates to fill the scoring void if the Bulldogs are to be successful. The Bulldogs will probably look to pound the paint more this year with Nze and Bryce Golden returning, but wing scoring could be difficult to come by. Christian David returns after missing most of last season with injury, but David is primarily a defensive presence.
Some of Butler’s vaunted freshman will likely have a chance to contribute right from the get go and could be the determining factor in Butler’s success. Carlos “Scooby” Johnson and Myles Tate are perhaps the most probably immediate contributors.