It only takes one word to describe last year's Butler Bulldogs: grit. In many ways, they were what they were, limited in functionality due to a thin roster, but consistently resilient in battling their way to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. That team ended up losing to No. 3 seed Notre Dame in the Round of 32 in March, but considering that pre-season expectations had the Bulldogs pegged as a fringe tournament team, the 2014-15 season was a massive success for first-year coach Chris Holtmann.
However, last year's Butler squad wasn't without their limitations, as the team was left relying on their mental toughness to make up for their in-game weaknesses. The offense often flip-flopped poor isolation possessions late in the shot clock for now-senior guard Kellen Dunham and his offensive counterpart, now-redshirt senior forward Roosevelt Jones. Opposing defenses began throwing the full-court press at the Bulldogs for entire games, and due to Jones' poor ball-handling abilities, guard Alex Barlow (who wasn't a natural ball-handler, either) was left to single-handedly will the ball over halfcourt before a possession could really even begin. The offense went stagnant, lacking movement and creativity before settling for whatever Dunham and Jones could create for themselves.
This year, it's going to be a much different story for the Bulldogs. Gone are Barlow and fellow graduating senior Kameron Woods (whose rebounding prowess I've previously compared to Godzilla dismantling the world's major cities), and while they'll certainly be missed, there's some very exciting new additions to this year's lineup. Let's start at the top, with this year's most promising new starter:
Point Guard: Tyler Lewis (Junior)
2013-14 Stats (at N.C. State): 4.4 PPG, 3.8 APG, 1.3 RPG, 34.6 FG%, 23.4 3FG%
The first McDonald's All-American to ever suit up in a Butler uniform, Lewis has had scouts buzzing since his days at the infamous Oak Hill High School. Transferring from N.C. State prior to the 2014-15 season, Lewis spent two years with the Wolfpack before joining the Bulldogs, sitting out last season due to NCAA rules. The 5'11" guard started 18 games at N.C. State during his sophomore year, posting a school single-season record with a 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. While he's a bit of waterbug guard due to his smaller size, Lewis will be the most talented ball-handler the Bulldogs have had in a long time, and his passing vision will create opportunities for the team's scorers like they've never seen before.
He'll be the primary initiator of the offense, and he needs to be, even when sharing the floor with Jones, who basically played point forward for the Bulldogs last season. Lewis will need to improve his shot selection, posting some very low shooting percentages from all over the floor during his days at N.C. State, but with Dunham and junior forward Andrew Chrabascz moving around and creating space for themselves to spot-up, Lewis should be able to play to his strengths early on. He may not be able to shut opposing guards down like Barlow did defensively, but Lewis adds an entirely new gear to the Butler offense from the first day he steps foot on the court.
Shooting Guard: Kellen Dunham (Senior)
2014-15 Stats: 16.5 PPG, 0.9 APG, 2.6 RPG, 42.9 FG%, 41.0% 3FG
An offensive force since his freshman year, Dunham embraced a new role with the Bulldogs last season while also increasing his efficiency and scoring across the board. After serving as the team's go-to offensive option during his sophomore campaign, Jones' return from injury last season meant that Dunham would be sharing touches with another big-time scorer, but the distribution worked out in everyone's favor as Dunham was named 1st Team All-Big East at season's end. His swan song will be massively important for the Bulldogs, especially since Lewis will be taking the ball out of Jones' hands a lot on offense. As a senior, he'll be expected to lead the team in scoring again, and after last season cemented him as one of the best shooters in all of college basketball, a strong season could mean an opportunity to play at the NBA level after graduation. Expect Dunham to be the alpha dog of this offense, and with good reason.
Small Forward: Roosevelt Jones (Redshirt Senior)
2014-15 Stats: 12.7 PPG, 3.7 APG, 5.2 RPG, 42.1 FG%
Jones continues to be one of the biggest anomalies in all of college sports, with the body of linebacker (6'4", 225 pounds), a guard's slashing ability and absolutely no shooting whatsoever. Seriously, he didn't even attempt a single three-pointer last season, and his unconventional shooting form left him at just 60.6 percent from the free throw line. He's the ultimate "you get what you get" player, barreling his way to the basket with an arsenal of floaters that appear to have no chance of going in, and yet somehow always do. By no means is Jones a conventional wing at any level of play, but the Bulldogs are just plain better with this guy on the floor. Jones has a serious clutch gene, and while his game is sometimes frustrating, he fills up the stat sheet in a variety of ways.
His role will be different this year now that the Bulldogs have a pure point guard in the lineup, and Holtmann will have to get creative to find ways to get Jones his touches since he does more harm to the team's spacing than good. He'll also have to guard the opposing team's best guard/wing in most scenarios, so a decrease in scoring may lead to added work on the boards and on defense. No matter his role, Jones is a key cog in the Butler machine.
Power Forward: Tyler Wideman (Sophomore)
2014-15 Stats: 2.3 PPG, 0.6 APG, 2.6 RPG, 53.6 FG%
This is where things get interesting. If there's a hole in the Butler lineup, it's going to be found here as the team attempts to figure out who fits best next to Chrabascz down low. Last year, this spot belonged to Woods, who gobbled up boards and shut down lengthier wings on the perimeter while also serving as the team's most athletic shot-blocker. Suffice it to say that there's not a guy on this team who will be able to do all of those things this season. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Bulldogs are out of options, as Wideman actually put together some very solid performances off the bench during his freshman season. Believe it or not, among Butler players who average ten minutes or more last season, Wideman's 53.6 field goal percentage was actually the highest on the entire team as he mostly patrolled around for put-backs and basic post back-downs. This will be a big jump from last year's role, but Wideman brings the most experience to this spot.
Competing with Wideman throughout the season will be senior Austin Etherington, a stretch four-type who struggled to make an impact for the Bulldogs a year ago after transferring from Indiana, and sophomore Jackson Davis, a raw carbon-copy of Woods who served mostly as a bench sparkplug for Holtmann last season. Davis has the highest ceiling of the group, but he'll need to have improved a lot this offseason to get where he wants to be. If he starts reaching some of that potential, my gut says this spot may be his by the end of the season. Also entering the mix is 6'10" freshman Nate Fowler, who may struggle to break into the rotation early but brings the most size out of anybody on the team. I'd love to see Holtmann go small and experiment with Kelan Martin at the four for short stretches due to his strong build, but he'll get torched down low defensively in those sets. Again, they'll have to creative, but Butler has some options.
Center: Andrew Chrabascz (Junior)
2014-15 Stats: 11.2 PPG, 1.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 44.6 FG%, 34.3 3FG%
If you followed along with us last season, you've heard me gush about how badly I want Chrabascz's role to increase, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Entering the starting lineup full-time last season, Chrabascz put together a great sophomore campaign before dealing with a nagging hand injury late in the year. He'll probably be the biggest beneficiary of Lewis' passing, and he showed last year with Barlow what he can do in the pick-and-roll when healthy. He's feeling out a nice shooting stroke, finding ways of spotting up in the pick-and-pop and finding open looks from the mid-range, corners and top of the key. With range out to the three-point line, Chrabascz can be a key to opening things up for the Bulldogs offensively, and everything is in place for him to take a huge leap this season. He'll have to shoulder a massive load inside on defense while waiting for a teammate to emerge at the four spot, but he should be stronger this season and more seasoned on the interior. It's not a stretch to say that he may end up being the second-most important player on this team by season's end.
Rounding out the rotation will be Martin, further embracing his role as the go-to bench scorer before he most likely takes Jones' role in the starting lineup next season, Etherington, Davis and Jordan Gathers, a do-it-all transfer from St. Bonaventure who will be eligible to play right away this season. It remains to be seen how much playing time Holtmann will give to his two freshman, and Fowler will probably have a better shot at breaking into the rotation than Sean McDermott, a 6'6" guard who is drawing comparisons to Dunham (it may have something to do with the fact that they went to the same high school). On the bright side, this is deeper team than last year, even if Holtmann will have to puzzle all the pieces together in an unconventional lineup. Based off of what we saw from the second-year coach in his debut season, something tells me he'll be up to the task.