Team: Butler Bulldogs
2018-19 Record: 16-17, 7-11 Big East
2018-19 Big East Finish: Three-way tie for eighth and last with Providence and DePaul; ended up with the #9 seed in the conference tournament
Final 2018-19 KenPom Ranking: #72
Postseason? Earned a #5 seed in the NIT, but gave up a big second half run on the road to lose to Nebraska, 80-76, in the first round.
Key Departures: Paul Jorgensen and Nate Fowler were the only seniors on the squad, while Joey Brunk transferred to Indiana. Brunk had finished his degree in three years, so while he has two years left at Indiana, he’ll be immediately available as a graduate transfer.
Jorgensen averaged 11.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.6 assists while shooting 39% on threes as a senior and playing 26.5 minutes per game. Fowler had a more limited role, averaging 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per game. 2018-19 was the only season where Brunk really had an impact on Butler, and even then he was limited to 7.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 18.6 minutes per game.
Key Returners: Kamar Baldwin (17.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists), Jordan Tucker (9.7 points, 4.1 rebounds), Aaron Thompson (6.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists), and Sean McDermott (9.5 points, 3.9 rebounds)
Key Additions: Khalif Battle, 247 Sports’ #92 player in the class of 2019, grad transfer Derrik Smits (12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds at Valparaiso last year), and traditional transfer Bryce Nze (10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists at Milwaukee in 2017-18)
Coach: LaVall Jordan, heading into his third year at Butler and fourth overall year as a head coach. He has a record of 37-31 at Butler and 48-55 overall.
Outlook: 2018-19 was Butler’s first losing season since Brandon Miller went 14-17 in the Bulldogs’ first season in the Big East. That season itself was a bit of an aberration, as they hadn’t had a sub-.500 season since Todd Lickliter went 13-15 in 2005. Over the past decade, Butler has generally speaking been an NCAA tournament caliber team, but that didn’t come together in LaVall Jordan’s second season running the show in Indianapolis.
I don’t want to make outlandish statements here, but Year Three of the Jordan Era has the potential to be a turning point for Butler. The Bulldogs hired Jordan because he’s one of their guys, having been a former player and a former assistant and thus deeply familiar with The Butler Way. However, he had one year of head coaching experience, and while no one expected much from that Milwaukee team in 2016-17, the Panthers also didn’t knock anyone’s socks off either. Jordan put a team of Chris Holtmann’s guys into the NCAA tournament, and then 2018-19 was a step back.
Step backs happen, that’s fine. It’s what happens next that’s important. Butler doesn’t have much in terms of recruits coming in, with just Khalif Battle as the only piece you could expect to make much of an impact right away. That’s going to generally lead to Kamar Baldwin and Jordan Tucker carrying the show for the Bulldogs this coming winter.... and, well, if we’re being honest about it, that got them a 7-11 record in Big East play last year.
What’s going to be different about Butler that would give them a better record? Is grad transfer Derrik Smits going to be able to recreate the 12 points and six rebounds that he averaged at Valparaiso in the Missouri Valley Conference last year? Is Bryce Nze, who played for Jordan in Milwaukee as a freshman and was fairly productive from the get go from the Panthers in the Horizon League, going to be able to translate that ability to the Big East? Can Battle jump in and make an impact as a freshman? If Butler wants to be in serious NCAA tournament consideration in 2020, these are all questions that are probably going to have to be answered in the affirmative.
And even if they are, will that make a difference in the Big East? The consensus thought seems to be that the league will be incredibly competitive in 2019-20, and perhaps more importantly, incredibly relevant on a national scale. Recently, Sam Vecenie joined John Fanta on an Inside The Big East appearance, and he has as many as five Big East teams looking like top 25 squads heading into the start of the year. If you’re a team that has to answer questions about what your newcomers are going to do to change your fortunes as well as figure whether or not your coach can do the job at this level, running into eight games of top 25 caliber buzzsaw in league play might not be a recipe for success.