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2023-24 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Butler Bulldogs

After a promising start, Thad Matta’s first season in Indy went south in a hurry. Is a near total roster changeover the solution?

Butler v Xavier
Jalen Thomas is the only notable returning player for the Bulldogs.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Team: Butler Bulldogs

2022-23 Record: 14-18, 6-14 Big East

2022-23 Big East Finish: Ninth place, one game behind St. John’s, three ahead of DePaul.

Final 2022-23 Ranking: #119, up from their preseason rank of #130

Final 2022-23 T-Rank Ranking: #123, down from their preseason rank of #110

Postseason? Only a 10 point loss to St. John’s on the first day of the Big East tournament.

Key Departures: Alright, kids, get comfortable, we’re going to be here for a minute.

Let’s start with the guy that Butler knew they were going to lose when last year started, shall we? Eric Hunter played four years at Purdue before grad transferring down the road to play his bonus season of eligibility for the Bulldogs. He finished the year as one of just two players on the roster to start more than 26 games and was one of just three to appear in more than 30 of their 32 contests. He averaged 8.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists a night.

Okay, now we move on to the stack of general departures. Going in order of points per game:

  • Jayden Taylor (12.9, #1 on the team) transferred to NC State after two seasons in Indianapolis
  • Simas Lukosius (11.6, T-2 on the team) transferred to Cincinnati after two seasons in Indianapolis
  • Manny Bates (11.6, T-2 on the team) bypassed his remaining eligibility after two full seasons and one injured season at NC State and one full season at Butler to enter the draft, was not selected, and was on the NBA Summer League roster for Memphis.
  • Chuck Harris (10.4, #4 on the team) transferred to SMU after three seasons in Indianapolis
  • Ali Ali (6.5, #7 on the team) is headed back to Akron for his bonus season of eligibility after spending three years with the Zips and then transferring to Butler for last season
  • Pierce Thomas (2.2, #9 on the team) transferred to Eastern Kentucky after one season in Indianapolis

All told, this means Butler has lost their top five scorers, seven of the eight guys who averaged more than two rebounds per game, and everyone who averaged more than an assist per game.

Key Returners: There is one guy that will ring a bell for you that is back from last season. That’s Jalen Thomas, who started 13 times in 21 appearances for Butler. What passes for good news here is that the Georgia State transfer got all of his missed games out of the way early in the season and then worked his way into the starting lineup as things wound to their conclusion. The 6’10” Thomas finished the year averaging 7.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game.

Just to hang a big ol’ sign on everything from the Departures section: Butler returns just three players from last year’s roster at all.

Key Additions: With just three players returning from last season in total, you would expect to hear about a whole big bunch of new names, and you are correct. There are four freshman amongst their group of TEN new faces, but 247 Sports lists just two of them and only one — Finley Bizjack, a 6’4” guard from Texas — comes close to worth mentioning as a key addition at #105 in the Composite rankings.

Let’s transition from there to the most well known new addition, if that makes any sense at all, because Posh Alexander is at Butler now. The former St. John’s guard has left Queens after three seasons as the Red Storm go through a transition to a new head coach. Alexander is arguably coming off his worst collegiate season, averaging career lows in points (10.2), assists (4.2), and steals (2.0) while shooting a career low 40% from the field as the Johnnies went 18-15 with a 7-13 record in the Big East.

That covers half of the new guys, so there are five more transfers to touch on here. Everyone that Butler has brought in on a transfer has eligibility remaining past this season, so that’s something that’s worth keeping an eye on as the year goes along. Jahmyl Telfort (6’7”, 220 lb., Guard/Forward, Boucherville, Quebec, Canada) might be the most intriguing new face on the roster. He averaged 16.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game for Northeastern last season, but we’ll have to wait to see if playing in the Big East helps or hurts his 32% long range shooting percentage. DJ Davis (6’1”, 170 lb., Guard, Moreno Valley, California) also put up big scoring numbers last season, giving UC Irvine 15.0 points per game along with 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists. If he can continue to connect on 40% of his threes like he has the past two years, that’s going to pay off well for the Bulldogs. Andre Screen (7’1”, 230 lb., Center, Alexandria, Virginia) has the inside track on the job as starting center after three years at Bucknell. He averaged 11.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in just 23 minutes a night for the Bison, so there is a bit of a question as to how he’ll manage against the big men that the Big East will throw at him.

Those three guys all have three years of experience at their last stop behind them. Pierre Brooks (6’6”, 225 lb., Guard, Detroit, Michigan) has been at Michigan State for two years, although he really only had a notable role for the Spartans this past season. He played in 30 games with five starts and averaged over 14 minutes a night, but only added 3.6 points and 1.7 rebounds. Landon Moore (6’3”, 200 lb., Guard, Bloomington, Illinois) heads to Indianapolis after one year at St. Francis (PA), which is not the St. Francis that has ended their athletic department. He did a heck of a lot for the Red Flash, averaging 13.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists while knocking in 36% of his long range attempts.

Coach: Thad Matta, going into his second season in his second stint as BU head coach. He now has an overall record of 453-172 after stops at Xavier and Ohio State as well.

Outlook: We have to address a couple of moving parts here. The first part is how Thad Matta’s first year on a sideline since 2017 went. I’m not going to say that it was straight up bad, because there are some parts to like here. When starts you off at #130 in the country and after 11 games you’ve risen to #70, things are going your way. Please remember: Up through January 13th, Butler was the only team in the country that managed to figure out how to beat Kansas State, a team that ended up going to the Elite Eight.

And then Thad Matta changed his lineup, as we talked about in our preview of Marquette/Butler in early February. Said lineup change combined with an insistence on continuing with the change even though it was very clearly not working from an analytics perspective as well as an on the court results perspective ultimately led to Butler cratering out for the rest of the season. Before the calendar flipped to February, the Bulldogs were a sub-100 KenPom team again, and only a home win over Xavier probably stopped them from coming to a rest worse off than their #130 preseason ranking. Feel free to take a peek at T-Rank’s Game Score chart for Butler to get a feel for how everything just seemed to keep getting worse for the team as the season kept on going.

Moving Part #2 is the fact that pretty much every single player that was responsible for anything that happened on the court last season for Butler is gone. Whether or not you want to count that as good news is up to you. Upside: Guys who couldn’t win basketball games are gone. Downside: Any potential growth together as a coherent roster from year to year is also gone.

Moving Part #3 is Matta himself. He’s the one who made the lineup change away from a five man group that was as effective and as efficient as any group in the country. He’s the one who didn’t go back to that lineup when things started going sideways for Butler. He’s the one who stuck with his much less efficient lineups and barely even played that tippy top five man group at all. There’s a part of Moving Part #2 that rests here, namely: How many guys left Butler because they absolutely hated playing for Matta because they could see how poorly it was going and the coaching staff was doing nothing to fix it?

So here’s the big question that we have to ask about Butler for this season: Is Matta’s near complete reset of the roster a good thing or a bad thing for how 2023-24 is going to go?

Is having a brand new complement of players going to fix whatever the problems were last season, or is the inexorable slide into disaster — remember when we all buckled up to see Marquette try to clinch an outright Big East title against the Bulldogs.... and then MU was up 16-6 after 10 minutes and there was nothing to worry about? — mostly Matta’s fault and thus changing out nearly every single player isn’t going to do a dang thing to fix the tactical problems at the heart of Butler going 6-14 in Big East action last year?

To put it another way: If T-Rank is correct, and the Big East is going to have four top 20 teams and eight top 60 teams next season..... how is Butler’s roster of largely unremarkable freshmen, mid-major transfers, and a wildly inefficient Posh Alexander possibly going to compete against that stacked up schedule? And that’s before we account for the fact that maybe, just maybe, Thad Matta has lost his fastball in between leaving Ohio State and picking up the whistle at Butler.