Team: Butler Bulldogs
2020-21 Record: 10-15, 8-12 Big East
2020-21 Big East Finish: 10th, half a game behind Marquette thanks to weird COVID cancellations.
Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #120
Postseason? Absolutely not.
Key Departures: None. There are three gentlemen who were on last year’s roster but not on next year’s roster, but they combined to play in 18 games for a total of 196 minutes.
Key Returners: I’m going to presume that you went to go get a beverage when you saw that Butler didn’t lose anyone notable from last year’s team. They return all five seniors, as all five opted to take their COVID-bonus season and stay in Indianapolis for it. They are, in order of points per game a year ago, Bryce Nze (11.4), Jair Bolden (10.5), Aaron Thompson (10.4), Bo Hodges (8.2) and Christian David (1.8).
That list does not include leading scorer Chuck Harris (12.9/game) who played in 24 of 25 games and started 14 times for the Bulldogs as a freshman last season, nor does it mention Bryce Golden, who averaged 10.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Nze was the team’s leading rebounder at 7.7 per game, while Thompson topped the assist chart at 4.7 per contest.
We probably should put a bit of an asterisk on Bo Hodges’ season, as he only played in nine total games for Butler. His rebounding and assists averages were second best on the team even in his limited appearances. He missed nearly all of December and January due to being ruled academically ineligible, but the NCAA ruled on an appeal and let him make his season debut on January 30th to slip in there at the last second. Even then, Hodges didn’t play in every remaining game as he missed three contests down the stretch.
Key Additions: Ty Groce leads a four-pack of newcomers to the roster this fall. The 6’8”, 215 pound forward averaged 15.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.0 assists last season in 18 games at Eastern Michigan. He also posted a career high three-point shooting percentage of 34.0%, but he is a career 26.4% shooter.
The other three new guys are all freshmen, and they combine to give Butler the #61 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports, even if none of them are top 200 prospects. Still, #61 in the country is only good enough for #9 in the Big East.
We should probably go ahead and mention Scooby Johnson here. The Michigan native blew his left ACL long before the 2020-21 season started, and so he never got a chance to play during his first year at Butler. The Bulldogs currently list Johnson at 6’6” and 230 pounds, and he was Butler’s top ranked recruit a year ago at #160 per 247 Sports.
Coach: LaVall Jordan, entering his fifth season at his alma mater and sixth season as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 69-55 overall at Butler and 34-40 in Big East games. Overall, Jordan’s record is 80-79.
Outlook: So, clearly, the good news for the 2021-22 season for Butler is that they’re essentially just running the whole thing back again this season, with the addition of Ty Groce adding more than they’re actually losing. Five seniors all return thanks to COVID relief as provided by the NCAA, which includes the top rebounder and the top assists man, as does leading returning scorer Chuck Harris. Whatever continuity they built last year as a team will carry over to this coming season, and that’s good news for the coaching staff in terms of developing the team. In theory, Butler will be better off because you could expect Aaron Thompson to play more than the 14 of 24 games he played last season due to an early season knee injury and a shoulder injury that ended his season early, Christian David will be much healthier with even more time gone by since his ACL surgery, and Bo Hodges will be healthy and eligible for the whole season.
The question becomes: Are you a better team because you have the same roster back for another season? In 2020-21, Butler finished under .500 for just the fifth time since the 1993-94 season. Their winning percentage of .400 was the worst since the 1992-93 season when Barry Collier — the current athletic director, as coincidence would have it — guided the team to an 11-17 record for a .393 winning percentage. It’s also the second time in three seasons that the Bulldogs have finished under .500 overall, with both coming under the guidance of current head coach LaVall Jordan.
In 2020-21, Butler ranked #164 in the country in offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. That is the program’s worst finish in that department since Brad Stevens’ second to last season at Butler and BU’s final year in the Horizon League when they ranked #232 in the country. That was back in 2012. They were not a good offensive team because they could not shoot the ball at all. Two-pointers, three-pointers, free throws, whatever, they were bad at it.
They did not make up for this on the defensive end, where they were one of the worst shooting defenses in the country. #295 in effective field goal percentage, #240 on three-pointers, #293 on two-pointers. The Bulldogs ended up as a top 100 defense over all thanks to some really good rebounding and a dedication to not fouling very much, but that is about it in terms of upside here.
What’s going to change in 2021-22? More importantly, what is LaVall Jordan going to change? Is he going to stop Jair Bolden from attempting 70% of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc when he’s only a 34% shooter? Is he going to tell Myles Tate to stop shooting threes at all because he only hit 23% last season? Are Bolden (35%) and Chuck Harris (39.9%) AND Bo Hodges (35%) going to suddenly become efficient scorers inside the arc? Ty Groce has been a very effective inside scorer in his four years at Eastern Michigan (54% on twos), but only last year did he even approach “useful outside shooter,” and if Jordan has a tendency to let guys shoot shots that they’re not actually particularly good at.... boy, that sure sounds an awful lot like Groce getting to shoot more threes than he really should.
Usually you see teams playing at an incredibly methodical pace on offense — Butler was #337 in offensive possession length last season — because they’re working to get the best shot possible. What if you don’t have any “best” shots on your team? Is playing very slowly still a very good plan? Jordan seems determined to play this way, as the Bulldogs have been trending slower and slower in his four seasons and he was one of the very slowest teams in the country in one year at Milwaukee. If his players just don’t get better at hitting shots, is minimizing the number of attempts they get in a game the best move possible?
What if there isn’t an upside for Butler? What if they hit their peak of growth as a team last year.... and that meant they went 8-12 in the Big East? What if Scooby Johnson getting healthy doesn’t make that much of an impact? What if Ty Groce isn’t that helpful on offense while making the jump from the MAC to the Big East? If you’re a Bulldogs fan and you want to yell at me about being negative about your team, that’s what the comments section is for.... but I’m just not seeing a team that’s going to be better than they were last season just because it’s the same guys out there in blue and white.