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2020-21 Big East Men’s Basketball Preview: Butler Bulldogs

We start our alphabetical trip through the previews with our friends in Indianapolis.

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 29 DePaul at Butler Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Team: Butler Bulldogs

2019-20 Record: 22-9, 10-8 in the Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: By themselves in fifth place, two games back of fourth and three back of a three-way tie for first.

Final 2019-20 KenPom Ranking: #25

Projected Postseason? Bracket Matrix has the Bulldogs in line for a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament that didn’t happen.

Key Departures: Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott were both senior starters for the Bulldogs. Baldwin averaged 16 points, five rebounds, and three assists per game, while McDermott chipped in 12 points, six rebounds, and an assist per outing. That’s Butler’s top two scorers and two of their top three rebounders off the roster by way of the end of their eligibility. Baldwin was also second on the team in assists, which helps explain why he was an all-Big East First Teamer at the end of 2019-20. Henry Baddley (14 minutes per game in 25 appearances) and Derrick Smits (9.6 minutes per in 17 appearances) were also seniors and I think we can qualify them as rotation players or at least close enough to warrant mention here at least in terms of declining depth on the Bulldogs roster.

Butler also lost two rotation guys before their eligibility ended. Khalif Battle saw 11 minutes of action per game in 24 appearances as a freshman last season, contributing three points and a rebound per game on average. The former top 100/four star prospect from New Jersey has transferred to Temple. This is kind of a big deal as, according to the Indianapolis Star, Battle was the highest rated out of state player to ever sign with the Bulldogs. In fact, Battle was the second best prospect to pick Butler this century according to 247 Sports. The other guy to head out the door early was Jordan Tucker. The transfer from Duke played in 30 of 31 games with five starts, averaging nine points and four rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game. He’s no longer at Butler because he elected to enter and stay in the NBA Draft. No, seriously.

Key Returners: Bryce Nze is your leading returning scorer at 9.2 points per game, and he also lead the team overall in rebounding at 6.6 per contest last season. Bryce Golden (7.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists) started all 31 games in 2019-20, so that’s pretty notable. Aaron Thompson will return for his senior season after leading the Bulldogs in assists at 4.7 per game. Christian David played in 17 games and averaged 14 minutes of action, so he was definitely a contributor for Butler, but he blew out his ACL in late January. I find it doubtful that he’ll be ready to contribute out of the gate, but we’ll see.

Key Additions: Butler has a top 50 recruiting class, which ranks fifth in the Big East, and they got there by way of four prospects ranked between #145 and #170. That’s a lot of dudes inbound, if nothing else. However, only one of them — Scooby Johnson — was a top 150 prospect and just barely at #149 according to 247 Sports. However however, the 6’6” Johnson blew out his ACL in late August and will miss whatever the 2020-21 season turns into.

They do have two transfers eligible. Mike Parker had what appears to be an incredibly successful high school career in North Carolina and had been at Division 3 Salisbury before transferring to Butler before 2019-20. It appears he never played at Salisbury and he’s in Indianapolis as a walk-on. The big name to know here is graduate transfer Jair Bolden. The 6’3”, 201 pound guard out of Brooklyn finished up his degree at South Carolina after starting his collegiate experience at George Washington. His numbers for one year with the Gamecocks are about in line with his two years with GW: 8.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, shooting splits of 42/41/70.

Coach: LaVall Jordan, heading into his fourth season at Butler and fifth year overall as a head coach. He has a record of 59-40 at Butler and 60-64 overall.

Outlook: 2019-20 was a lot for Butler. They started the season unranked in the AP poll, but a 7-0 start got them into the top 25 and a near miss loss against then-#11 Baylor in Waco only helped them. By mid-January, the Bulldogs were 15-1 and ranked #5 in the country. They lost their very next game to start off a three game skid that led them to go just 7-8 the rest of the season. Winning the final three games of the season was a pretty big deal for the Bulldogs, as they had dropped eight of the previous 11 games. Quite honestly, it should have been worse than that, as they had a completely inexplicable win over Marquette in the middle of all of that. That was the “Steve Wojciechowski calls for a foul while the game is tied with less than 30 seconds to play which really didn’t have any impact on the outcome if you think about it after the fact but was still massively stupid” game.

Where were we? Oh, right, Butler was questionable.

It’s not like Butler racked up that 15-1 start on cupcakes, by the way. By the time the season came to an end, they had six top 50 wins in those first 15 victories, and two more in the top 100. Four of those top 50 wins were non-conference victories. And then they lost eight of their next 12, all against top 100 opponents, and all against Big East foes. What happened there?

It’s not time missed by Aaron Thompson, as Butler went 2-2 in the games that he missed last year. There’s an argument to be made that the loss of Christian David was a problem, as he only played a handful of minutes in two of the three games that started their skid and then missed the rest of the season. Still, at 14 minutes per game on average, and all off the bench, that’s losing depth, not suddenly finding a sinkhole in your kitchen.

The most obvious answer is that by the time January 15th rolled around, there was enough game tape available on the Bulldogs that the Big East coaches were able to start scheming in successful ways against Butler. This, of course, in addition to the existing familiarity that the Big East coaches would have against LaVall Jordan after two years of coaching against him.

So, with that in mind, it starts you asking questions about what lays ahead for Butler in 2020-21. In Baldwin, McDermott, and Tucker, they’re losing three of their top four scorers and three of their top five rebounders. The real problem is losing Baldwin, of course, as he took more than 14 shots per game and ranked up a top 70 usage rate per on one of the 15 slowest paced teams in the country. Butler depended heavily on Baldwin being able to do a lot of things for them last season, and now they’re going to have to figure something else out.

Thompson and the Bryces are perfectly reliable dudes to have in your starting lineup, but I don’t know if any of them are “let’s rely on these guys to carry us this year” guys. The clear argument against it is that if they were, then Jordan wouldn’t have put so much weight onto Baldwin’s shoulders. I’m not going to expect any of their freshmen to suddenly take up the mantle right out of the gate, as they all have the kind of recruiting profile that says that they aren’t that kind of guy. But this is Butler, and who knows what kind of diamond in the rough that Jordan has managed to rummage up?

That leaves me with the impression that LaVall Jordan is going to turn the keys over to Jair Bolden. That’s definitely a choice, as Bolden has never been a full time starter anywhere he’s played. He worked his way into the lineup as a freshman at GW, but then lost that job in the back end of his sophomore season. After redshirting for a year, Frank Martin had him in the starting five out of the gate, but by the time SEC games rolled around, it was bench minutes for him. If Bolden can shoot like he did for the Gamecocks (41% from deep, 42% in SEC games) and hold onto the ball like he did there (top 125 in the country in turnover rate per KenPom), then maybe he is the guy to rely on here. It’s just that he’s never been that guy for a whole season.

That’s presuming, of course, that LaVall Jordan keeps it with the same general gameplan that he had, letting one guy be the feature player and letting everyone else fill in the cracks around him. If Big East coaches have that entire playbook figured out, then sticking to it might not be in Butler’s best interests. Finding a new way to go about things without the specific talents of Kamar Baldwin could be more beneficial to the Bulldogs this season.