Butler was well-prepped for the rigors of Big East play, thanks to a pretty tough non-conference schedule last season. According to KenPom, the Bulldogs had the 40th toughest out-of-conference slate last season, the second-highest ranking of all Big East teams. The Bulldogs did well, finishing that portion of their schedule with an 11-1 record. Last year, Butler finished 25-9, with the second-best record in the Big East--although it swept conference champion Villanova in both regular season meetings--and it reached the Sweet 16.
With Chris Holtmann at Ohio State and alumnus LaVall Jordan in at head coach, Butler will try to recreate the same success and build on last season. This year, the Bulldogs have a pretty decent non-conference slate headlined by their appearance in the PK80: Phil Knight Invitational and a couple of solid opponents sprinkled throughout. Here is a look at what awaits Butler in the first half of the regular season.
Kennesaw State (November 10)
The Owls finished below-.500 last season and with the graduations of some of their most productive players--Kendrick Ray and Aubrey Williams--this might be an even tougher year for them. Ray was one of the top scorers in college basketball last season, averaging 21.2 points per game. Meanwhile, Williams was a double-double machine that provided an interior presence on both ends of the court. Kennesaw State is fortunate to bring back Nick Masterson, who was the third member of the team's leading trio that included Ray and Williams. Unlike Ray, Masterson is so much more efficient on the floor. He didn't score as much or take as many shots as Ray--and that should change this season, as he takes a bulk of the work load. Masterson can score from almost anywhere and was one of the top 3-point shooters in the country, boasting a blistering 53.1 percent performance from deep. Other than that, Kennesaw State is looking for some players to fill in the shoes of Ray and Williams.
Princeton (November 12)
Last season, Princeton was the undisputed Ivy League champion. It went undefeated in conference play and won the first ever Ivy League tournament title. The Tigers nearly pulled off an upset of Notre Dame in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, putting an end to their first appearance at the Big Dance since 2011. They appear to still be pretty solid, as they retain two of their top four scorers from a year ago: juniors Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens. Cannady and Stephens are excellent two-way players. Cannady can knock it down from deep and is automatic from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Stephens is primarily an inside scorer that can occasionally shoot from the perimeter. He's also a tough defender. Princeton's biggest loss going into the season is the graduation of Spencer Weisz, a point forward that nearly did everything for the Tigers. He was a double-digit scorer, as well as the top rebounder and dimer. Princeton will need to find a replacement for the four-year starter.
Maryland (November 15)
Butler is looking to improve to 2-0 in Gavitt Tipoff Games when it squares off against Maryland. The Terrapins bid farewell to their star three-year starter, Melo Trimble, who declared for the NBA Draft after the end of last season. Fortunately for them, it might not be a true rebuild. Justin Jackson almost darted to take the jump for the next level, but ultimately backed out to return to Maryland. Jackson is lauded by some to be a first-rounder in the next NBA Draft. Jackson headlines a strong sophomore class that was part of a great recruiting bunch. Aside from Jackson, classmates Kevin Heurter and Anthony Cowan were 4-star prospects coming out of high school. They all got a great amount of playing time last season, and will be expected to contribute more. Combine that with another pair of incoming 4-star recruits in Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando, and Maryland will be young--but competent.
PK80: Phil Knight Invitational
Furman (November 18)
The Paladins enjoyed a resurgence over the last couple of years under Niko Medved, who helped the program win 42 games over the last two years--versus the ugly streak of four-straight losing seasons that came before that. However, Medved has now left to coach at Drake and his former assistant, Bob Richey has taken over. Richey's first game at head coach—in the CIT semifinals—didn't go so well, as the Paladins lost 77-51. With the offseason comes time to prepare and establish a system, and Furman hopes to maintain its recent success. The Paladins are limited in size, just like last year, with no one standing taller than 6-8. Fortunately for them, it returns virtually every rotational player from last season, after only graduating one key senior. Devin Sibley will look to lead the charge again, with Daniel Fowler right behind. This might also be a big step up for John Davis III, who doubled his production last season after his first two years, but a bigger role might be in the picture.
Texas (November 23)
Last season was a disappointing one for head coach Shaka Smart, who enters his third season with the Longhorns. They took a step back and finished with an ugly 11-22 record, but so far there are no indications that the same struggles will repeat itself this year. Despite the departures of Tevin Mack (transferred to Alabama) and Jarrett Allen (drafted by Brooklyn Nets), the Longhorns have a young, but promising roster. Sophomore Andrew Jones and junior Kerwin Roach Jr. are the top returning players, but most of the buzz has been surrounding Smart's incoming freshman class. The Longhorns boast a consensus top-10 recruiting class, with Mo Bamba leading the way and four-star prospects Matt Coleman, Jericho Sims, Royce Hamm, and Jase Febres following suit. Four out of five freshmen were ranked as top 100 recruits in the country. They'll certainly add to Texas' tough defensive play, but will be needed to pad an offense that struggled offensively. According to KenPom, Texas was 241st in the country in terms of effective FG% and 177th in offensive efficiency.
Duke OR Portland State (November 24)
Duke: College basketball’s favorite villain, Grayson Allen, is back in action, and he has a lot of new friends to help him out. Duke’s incoming freshmen class was already stacked as-is, but the commitment—and reclassification—of Marvin Bagley III, launched the Blue Devils automatically into the national title conversation. Duke brings in a loaded freshman class that includes four different consensus top 10, five-star talents—Bagley, Trevon Duval, Wendell Carter, and Gary Trent Jr.—as well as a pair of four-star recruits in Jordan Tucker and Alex O’Connell, and three-star player Jordan Goldwire. No offense to Portland State, but have the Blue Devils penciled in as the team to face the winner of Butler-Texas.
Portland State: The other local team participating in this tournament, Portland State finished just below .500 last year. The Vikings mainly relied on their offense to win them games. They boasted a deep 12-man rotation, with five different double-digit scorers leading the way. Three of the top scorers are back, as well as Braxton Tucker, who was a solid contributor before he went down with a season-ending injury. There were lofty expectations for the 6-6 wing, but those had to be curtailed for this season. Portland State needed its shots to fall, because its defense wasn’t going to be getting the job done. It was often on the losing end of some shootouts, as its defensive numbers were amongst the worst in the country.
Florida OR Stanford OR Gonzaga OR Ohio State (November 26)
Florida: The Gators were one of the best all-around teams in the country last season. They especially excelled on defense. Utilizing a balanced approach and a deep rotation, Florida should be able to pick up from where it left off, but it might need a few games to get itself in order. The Gators did graduate Kasey Hill, who was one of the team’s better defenders, and Canyon Barry, the big man down low. John Egbunu should be a solid fill in at center. His season was cut short due to injury, but he’s healthy now. Florida also brings back its top scorer in KeVaughn Allen, an explosive athlete that can score from nearly anywhere.
Stanford: The first season for head coach Jerod Hease was less than ideal, as the Cardinal finished a disappointing 14-17 last year. Poor three-point shooting defense and a frequent habit of sending opponents to the free throw line doomed Stanford. However, this year should be a much better one for the Cardinal, who retains four out of five starters, and then some. Reid Travis is a great finisher around the basket and a glass cleaner. The 6-foot-8 senior was the heart and soul of Stanford, averaging 17.4 points and 8.9 rebounds. Complement him with a sharpshooter like Dorian Pickens, and the Cardinal should be solid if it can figure itself out defensively.
Gonzaga: The national title runner-up will try to match last season’s success, but it won’t be easy. The Bulldogs enter the year without four of their five top scorers—Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Mathews, and Zach Collins. Despite this, expect Gonzaga to still be pretty good with its defense. The Bulldogs are a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, making it every year since Mark Few took over in 1999. They’ve also been one of the top defensive teams around. They were ranked No. 1 in terms of defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, during their run to the national championship game. Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson will be relied on to carry on the team’s winning rhythm and a staunch defensive effort. In eight of the last 10 years, Gonzaga was ranked in the top 50 for defensive efficiency.
Ohio State: This would be a compelling game, but the odds of this happening don't look very high. Former Butler head coach Chris Holtmann left for greener pastures in Columbus, and wouldn't it be great if the Bulldogs had a chance to face him and his new team? After being a consistent 20-win team over the last decade, Ohio State missed the mark last season. Slashing forward Jae’Sean Tate will look to be the leading man once again. A lot should be thrusted onto his shoulders after would-be returning players, JaQuan Lyle (transferred) and Trevor Thompson (NBA Draft early enrollee) left during the offseason. Tate is the Buckeyes’ top returning scorer and rebounder after posting 14.3 points per game and 6.4 boards per game last season.
Saint Louis (December 2)
The Billikens of late just haven’t looked like the NCAA Tournament form they had been in from 2012-14. Saint Louis had a pretty young team last season, with only two seniors. Maybe a year of experience will bring a better year for Saint Louis, but it will do without one of its top scorers and leading rebounder, both of which graduated. The Billikens struggles were mainly on offense, as they were one of the worst around. According to KenPom, they were ranked 324th in offensive efficiency. They turned the ball over often, they didn’t shoot the ball well on the floor—44.3 percent from inside the arc (333rd) and 34.2 percent from long range (205th). They couldn’t even capitalize on the free opportunities, only making 66.3 percent of foul shots (293rd).
Utah (December 5)
The Utes have enjoyed four-straight 20-win seasons, but that streak might be in jeopardy. This is somewhat of a rebuilding year for Utah, who will have to work hard to replace some of its key pieces from last season. The biggest loss was Kyle Kuzma, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Kuzma led the Utes in points and rebounds last season. Utah also graduated Lorenzo Bonam and watched two promising players transfer—JoJo Zamora and Devon Daniels. The Utes will now rely on two former transfers, David Collette (Utah State) and Sedrick Barefield (SMU), to lead the team. Both had pretty solid seasons last year, but they will need some of the less experienced guys to step up.
Youngstown State (December 9)
The Penguins suffered a turbulent 13-21 season that had two bright spots—Cameron Morse and Francisco Santiago. The senior tandem will be instrumental to how well Youngstown State does, as they are almost 50 percent of the team’s scoring offense. Overall, the Penguins didn’t have the most efficient offense—ranked 207th according to KenPom—but they really struggled defensively. Youngstown State got beat on the boards, allowed teams to dominate scoring from inside the arc, and didn’t really generate turnovers or tally up blocks. The Penguins seem a bit one-dimensional, relying a bit too much on Morse and Santiago, so restricting them would be paramount.
Purdue (December 16)
The Crossroads Classic! Butler might be trailing in the all-time series, but the Bulldogs have won the last five meetings against the Boilermakers. The games have been close, with Butler winning by an average margin of victory of 4.6 points in its current win streak against Purdue. The Boilermakers said farewell to their star double-double machine Caleb Swanigan, who has since been drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. However, Purdue should still be in pretty good shape, since it has the rest of a solid supporting cast trio that will now be the nucleus of this team. The Boilermakers have a lot of size and length and that begins upfront with 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas. They also have 6-8 wing Vince Edwards, who is comfortable with pulling up from almost anywhere. The last member of the trio, Carsen Edwards, enjoyed a good freshman season at point guard. He’s a two-way player that mainly does his damage inside, although he can occasionally pull up from deep, but he’s also one of their better perimeter defenders.
Morehead State (December 19)
The Eagles finished 14-16 last season and they’re hoping to put their woes behind them. They have an almost completely new team this year. Lamontray Harris and Jordan Walker are the only two rotational players out of the 7-man group used last year that are coming back. The other guys have either graduated or left the team. Morehead State was a great three-point shooting team last season, with a number of different guys able to knock it down from week. It made 38.7 percent (26th in the country) of its threes. Walker demonstrated an ability to knock down shots from long range as a freshman, shooting for 49.4 percent from beyond the arc. While Morehead State shot well from deep, it couldn’t defend the three-point line, allowing opponents to shoot 40.2 percent from three-point range.
Western Illinois (December 21)
The Leathernecks are coming off of a rough 8-20 year. This season might be even tougher, as they graduated their top scorers from a year ago--Garret Covington (20.1 points per game) and Mike Miklusak (15.5 points per game). These two were the only ones to eclipse the double-digit scoring mark and generated the bulk of the Western Illinois offense. With those two gone, the next in line seems to be Dalan Ancrum and C.J. Duff. Ancrum, a senior, mainly deferred to those two last season, but when he had the ball he could really shoot it from deep. He was 28-of-54 from beyond the arc last year. As for Duff, he played the most minutes per game after Miklusak and Covington as a freshman. These two should see an uptick in production as they become the focal points of the team. However, the Leathernecks will need more than just them, especially when it comes to defense. Western Illinois had the lowest turnover rate in all of Division I last season and was the third-worst team when it came to defending the three-point line.
Butler has a nice balance of cupcakes and formidable opponents in its out-of-conference schedule. The Phil Knight Invitational has some very talented teams in attendance, providing the opportunity to potentially beef up that postseason resume with quality games. The Bulldogs have always been about their balanced, team approach and with a number of starters from last season graduated--and a new head coach--it might take some time to get themselves in prime working order. Regardless, they should still be in pretty good shape with Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin around. The Bulldogs finished 11-1 in non-conference play last season, but this time around they have a much tougher slate. Even with the greater challenges ahead, the Bulldogs shouldn't lose more than three non-conference games. From there, they'll be ready to go in Big East play, where they should still be among one of the top teams in the conference.