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2022-23 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Butler Bulldogs

New head coach Thad Matta will be looking to improve immediately by way of the transfer portal.

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Butler head coach Thad Matta
What is Thad Matta’s first season on a sideline since 2017 going to look like?
Robert Scheer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Team: Butler Bulldogs

2021-22 Record: 14-19, 6-14 Big East

2021-22 Big East Finish: Tied for 9th, which qualifies as tied for last in the “not a rampaging trash fire like Georgetown” division.

Final 2021-22 KenPom.com Ranking: #121

Postseason? No, other than beating Xavier to advance to the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

Key Departures: A bunch. Three of Butler’s top four scorers are gone: Bo Hodges (10.0 ppg), Bryce Golden (8.8), and Bryce Nze (8.7). Golden was the only Butler player to start all 33 games last season, and one of just two to even play in every one. They also lose Aaron Thompson, who started in all 30 of his appearances and, at 3.8 assists per game, he was the only Butler player to average more than two helpers a night.

Also gone is Jair Bolden and Ty Groce. Bolden essentially disappeared off the face of the planet as the season went along last year, going from getting quality minutes of the bench to starting, to struggling to get on the court to not playing at all in BU’s final six games at least partially due to back spasms and an ankle injury. Groce was a grad transfer from Eastern Michigan who clearly did not have the kind of season you’d think he would be hoping to have when he elected to spend his COVID bonus season at Butler. He posted career lows in points, rebounds, and assists per game, and much like Bolden, his playing time all but evaporated after a stretch where he was starting in late November and early December.

Oh, and Butler fired head coach LaVall Jordan on April 1st. That’s a pretty key departure. The BU alumnus went 83-74 in his five seasons in the big chair on the Bulldogs’ bench, finishing with a winning record in Big East play just once. That one time is kind of a bummer, as it came in the 2019-20 season that was ended by COVID-19. Butler was projected by Bracket Matrix as a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament at the time, which would have been tied for the second best seeding for the Bulldogs since… well, ever actually. Jordan followed that up by going 24-34 over the next two seasons with a 14-26 record in Big East action, and here we are.

Key Returners: There will be three definitely notable returning names on Butler’s roster in November, and that number might float up to four depending on how you want to look at it. The biggest one is leading scorer Chuck Harris, who averaged 11.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game as a sophomore last season.

Simas Lukosius played in 32 of 33 games last year, including four starting appearances, and chipped in 6.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game while showing flashes of brilliance that indicates he might just only be scratching the surface of what he’s capable on the court, including a season high 27 points in BU’s Big East tournament win over Xavier. The fact that he is returning is actually pretty big news seeing as he did enter the transfer portal almost immediately upon learning that LaVall Jordan had been canned.

The final true notable returning guy from last year is Jayden Taylor. He was a regular rotation player for the Bulldogs as a freshman, getting 24.3 minutes a game even after losing his spot in the starting lineup in late January. His numbers aren’t eye-popping — 8.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists — but “regular rotation guy as a freshman” is a pretty valuable commodity for a team going through a coaching transition.

The mystery returning guy is Myles Tate. He suffered an ACL tear in Butler’s 2021 Big East tournament loss to Creighton, but ended up appearing in nine games this past year for Butler after making his season debut in mid-December. He played more than six minutes just once, giving BU 14 minutes of action in a February 18th loss on the road against St. John’s…. And then didn’t play in their next three games and played just six minutes the rest of the season. The fact that he could go at all less than a year after an ACL tear is pretty impressive, but we have no idea what kind of player he is now. As a freshman, the six-foot guard from South Carolina added 6.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game to the Butler lineup while starting in 18 of his 25 appearances. If he’s healthy and back to 100%, he can be a real contributor. If the knee injury sapped him of what made him a part-time starter as a freshman.... well, just add that to the pile of problems facing the Bulldogs.

Key Additions: Under our definition of “top 150 and above only,” Butler has no key freshmen coming in. Their only initial eligibility new guy on the team will be Connor Turnbull, a 6’10” center from Missouri who is ranked #259 in the country by 247 Sports. If you’re thinking that’s not great for a Big East team, I’d like to point out that Turnbull is still the 32nd best recruit this century for Butler, and they were in the Horizon League for the first 13 years.

The Bulldogs do add four transfers to their roster, two of which I remember getting attention from Marquette along the way. The most notable one is probably Manny Bates, a 6’11” forward coming from NC State. When healthy, he averaged 7.2 points and 4.9 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game for the Wolf Pack and was an elite level rebounder on the offensive glass. However, he suffered a season ending injury literally one minute into the 2021-22 season, so Butler’s first game of the season in November 2022 will be his first real action since March 25, 2021. Bates was one of the Marquette notable guys, and Ali Ali was the other. The 6’8” guard/forward from Indiana spent the past three seasons at Akron, where he averaged 7.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 88 career appearances for three pretty good Zips teams. Ali led Akron in scoring (13.9/game) and assists (2.5/game) this past season.

Butler’s other two transfers were perfectly acceptable roster components at their last stops, but only one of those is likely to directly translate to the Big East. That’s Eric Hunter, who played 128 career games in four seasons for Purdue. With career averages of 6.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game, he was never really a guy that the Boilermakers relied on to get things done.... but he also was a starter in 74 of his career appearances. The other guy is Jalen Thomas, who comes to Indianapolis after three seasons at Georgia State. He went from regular contributor to regular starter along the way, and wrapped up 78 career games with averages of 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. This is the part where I point out that he is 6’10” and 230 pounds and was Just A Guy in the Sun Belt.

Coach: Thad Matta, entering his first season in his second stint as Butler head coach. This will be Matta’s first season on a Division 1 sideline since he was fired by Ohio State in early June 2017. Matta has a career record of 439-154 overall and went 24-8 with the Bulldogs back in the 2000-01 season, back in the Horizon League when it was still called the Midwestern Collegiate Conference for one final campaign.

Outlook: Absolutely no idea, but if you made me pick something, I’d be leaning towards the “not great” end of the spectrum.

By my count, Butler is losing over 55% of their scoring from last season, and this is for a team that was offensively challenged in the first place. That’s if you look at their 63.9 points per game or their #187 ranking in offensive efficiency according to KenPom, so no matter how you slice it, it was bad and is now potentially getting worse. If this team was going to be coached by LaVall Jordan again, after back-to-back sub-150 offenses coming after three straight top 60 offenses, well, you can see the problems here.

Now, the good news for that, without accounting for what any of the new players bring to the table, is new head coach Thad Matta had a KenPom top 50 offense in eight of his 13 seasons at Ohio State. Seven of those eight were top 25 offenses, so there definitely seems to be some evidence that the new head Bulldog can dial up a few plays to get things to go in the hoop.

Here’s the catch, and it’s the catch that’s going to stay the catch until proven otherwise: The last time Matta coached a top 50 offense was 2014-15...... and he still had two more years to go in charge of the Buckeyes after that before he was eventually relieved of his duties. To put it another way: The last time that Thad Matta had a well regarded offense in college basketball, it would still be another three months before the Golden State Warriors won their first title with Stephen Curry as their lead player.

I’m not saying that Matta is going to be completely clueless about how to coach college basketball here in 2022. He’s definitely going to do a much better job than I would do. I am, however, saying that we have absolutely no idea how much Matta has stayed abreast of the shifting winds in tactics since he left the sidelines in Columbus in 2017. Even if he has done that, the last time he had a highly efficient offense, a certain amount of that offense was “give D’Angelo Russell the ball and see what happens.”

Not only is there no one on this Butler roster even remotely similar in overpowering talent to D’Angelo Russell, but it’s highly unlikely that Butler ever sees a guy like that. It’s just not what Butler does. It remains completely wild to me that Kellen Dunham is the best Butler recruit this century.... and he was ranked #88 in the country in 2012. In fact, the Bulldogs have had just two top 100 prospects sign with them since the calendar rolled over to 2000. Is the guy who made his bones as a coach with Russell and Mike Conley and Greg Odom and Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner and so on and so forth going to be able to pull it together at a place that has absolutely no history of getting recruits like that? And is he going to do it after taking five years off in between head coaching stints?

You could easily argue that Matta coached at Ohio State in an entirely different era of college basketball. We can probably say that he’s adjusting to the current era fairly well since he’s adding four transfers to his roster immediately to help bolster things in the immediate future. That’s a good sign for Butler in the long term. Is it a good sign for what this year’s team is going to be? Is Matta going to be able to mix together the guys who are returning and expecting to be major contributors with the newcomers that he’s brought in and get something productive right away? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t get too far one way or another about the Bulldogs until we actually see them on the floor.