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2019-2020 Butler Bulldogs Season Preview

Can the Bulldogs bounce back from a disappointing campaign?

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Butler Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Coach

LaVall Jordan

  • 48-55, career
  • 37-31 at Butler, 16-20 BIG EAST
  • 1-1 in NCAA Tournament

2018-2019 Season At a Glance

16-17 (7-11, BIG EAST — t-8th place); #5-seed in NIT, lost in the first round; #72 KenPom

Roster Update

Departures

Player 2018-2019 Stats
Player 2018-2019 Stats
Joey Brunk 7.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 61.7 FG%
Nate Fowler 5.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 45.3 FG%
Jerald Gillens-Butler 1.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.2 APG, 27.8 FG%
Paul Jorgensen 11.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 39.8 FG%

Returnees

Player Year 2018-2019 Stats
Player Year 2018-2019 Stats
Henry Baddley Sr. 4.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.5 APG, 42.1 FG%
Kamar Baldwin Sr. 17.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.1 APG, 44.7 FG%
Christian David Jr. 1.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.5 APG, 27.8 FG%
Campbell Donovan Jr. 0.5 PPG, 0.1 RPG, 0.1 APG, 33.3 FG%
Bryce Golden So. 1.7 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 0.0 APG, 52.2 FG%
Sean McDermott Sr. 9.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.5 APG, 44.2 FG%
Aaron Thompson Jr. 6.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 4.3 APG, 53.2 FG%
Jordan Tucker Jr. 9.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, .8 APG, 35.8 FG%

Newcomers

Player Year
Player Year
Khalif Battle Fr.
Markeese Hastings R-Fr.
John-Michael Mulloy Fr.
Bryce Nze R-Jr.
Derrik Smits Graduate Transfer

What Happened Last Year

The Bulldogs are coming off one of their most disappointing seasons in recent memory. Their non-conference results were uninspiring, but solid, with wins coming over Ole Miss, Florida, and UC-Irvine. They started conference play with a loss to Georgetown but bounced back with a blowout of Creighton; then they suffered back-to-back one-point losses (to Seton Hall and Xavier) that may have set the tone for the rest of the season.

Butler never managed to put together a stretch of quality performances after that, going 6-8 over the remaining BIG EAST schedule. The Bulldogs lost three consecutive games twice in conference play and only managed to sweep the season series against one opponent (DePaul).

Despite all that, Butler was still in heavy contention for an NCAA Tournament bid all the way into mid-February. However, Butler failed to capitalize on resume-building opportunities against Marquette and Villanova and, incredibly, lost to Providence three times over a span of 16 days (one of these was a BIG EAST tournament game). The Bulldogs were doomed to the NIT where they were flushed by Nebraska in the first round.


Reasons for Optimism

Kamar’s Trajectory

Butler needs Kamar Baldwin to be a star. Some would argue that he was a star last year – his 17.2 ppg were good enough for seventh in the BIG EAST, and he shot a higher field goal percentage than three of the players ahead of him on that list. He also led the Bulldogs in rebounds and steals, and was second in assists. The harsh reality for Baldwin and Butler is that it wasn’t nearly enough.

Baldwin was inconsistent, often disappearing in big games. He struggled with his decision-making and often failed to take care of the ball. He was a dismal shooter from long range and didn’t get to the free throw line enough. Even his defensive impact seemed to waiver.

For Butler to have a successful season, Baldwin needs to step up and make himself a clear choice for the All-BIG EAST First Team by the end of the year. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, there is a clear precedent for this kind of junior to senior leap.

Kelan Martin had a very similar career trajectory to Baldwin’s. As a freshman he played in every game and surprised with his contributions. As a sophomore, he was an integral part of a team that was led by other, more experienced players. As a junior, he was asked to take the helm, and he struggled – so much so that he eventually lost his starting role. As a senior, however, Martin came back and was a superstar, scoring over 20 PPG, earning a position on the all-conference first team and leading Butler to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.

If Baldwin can follow the example of his former teammate Martin and take the next step in his senior season, the Bulldogs will have a very high floor and could turn out to be a surprising team if some of Baldwin’s teammates exceed expectations.

Newcomers Filling Out the Roster

Butler has so many newcomers this year, it’s hard to project who will play and how much. This can only be a good problem for LaVall Jordan as last year he spent a lot of the season scratching his head, looking for answers anywhere on his bench.

The most exciting additions are graduate transfer Derrik Smits, who will be filling the void left by Nate Fowler and Joey Brunk in the middle and Khalif Battle who is one of the highest-ranked recruits Butler has ever landed. Smits is a massive center at 7’1” who has nice touch and passing ability, while Battle is an explosive athlete who participated in a national high school dunk contest during his senior year.

Two other additions are Bryce Nze and Markeese Hastings, both of whom were with Butler last year but didn’t play due to transfer rules (Nze) and a redshirt (Hastings). Nze was a tough, physical forward for LaVall Jordan at Milwaukee before following his coach to Butler and could bring some much-needed rebounding inside.

With all these newcomers, Coach Jordan will have a lot of depth and many different lineup combinations he could throw out there. He’ll especially have flexibility at wing positions where Jordan Tucker, Sean McDermott, Henry Baddley, Christian David, Battle, and Hastings can all be used.

Experience

Three of the newcomers mentioned above are not true newcomers as they either played at another school or, in the case of Hastings, were with Butler all last season. There are only two truly green players on the roster – Battle and John-Michael Mulloy.

Seniors Baldwin, McDermott, and Baddley are as battle-tested as any group in college basketball; Aaron Thompson is just a junior but has started 65 games over the last two seasons. Last year was Tucker’s first season getting regular playing time and this past offseason was his first full offseason with Butler. Smits is three games away from 100 career college appearances.

In short, the Bulldogs are experienced. Experience is a huge advantage in college sports and has often been a Butler strong-suit since few Bulldogs typically transfer or leave early to pursue a professional career. If Butler has another down year it will not be on account of the growing pains that plague dozens of college teams each year.

Reasons for Pessimism

LaVall’s Resume

This could be a make-or-break year for Coach LaVall Jordan. Jordan is a Butler guy through-and-through; he played for the Dawgs, then began his assistant coaching career there under Todd Lickliter. Last year, a feeling of uneasiness started to creep up regarding Jordan as his team failed to execute time and time again. Several arguments can be made in Jordan’s defense, but the fact is that his three-year head coaching resume leaves much to be desired.

In one year at Milwaukee and two years at Butler, Jordan has just one winning season; that was his first season at Butler, where almost the entire team was composed of Chris Holtmann recruits, and Kelan Martin turned in one of the all-time great seasons in Butler basketball history. Apart from that season, his head coaching record is a concerning 27-41.

There is not enough evidence yet to conclude that Jordan is a poor coach, but there are reasons to be concerned. This year, he will have few excuses. It’s his third year with the program; he knows his players and they know him. Some of his own recruits will be key contributors now. He is familiar with BIG EAST opponents.

By the end of this season, the writing may be on the wall for Coach Jordan one way or the other. If he can lift his Bulldogs over all the obstacles in their way and into the NCAA Tournament, it will be hard to deny that he knows what he’s doing, but if Butler falters again and finishes in the lower third of the BIG EAST, he may be looking for employment elsewhere.

All New Frontcourt

As discussed above, Butler will be relying heavily on newcomers in the front court. While smaller forwards like David and Tucker will probably get some time at power forward, Nze and Smits are expected to get most of the reps down low. Both were valuable players for their former teams, but the BIG EAST gauntlet will be more demanding than what they faced, respectively, in the Horizon League and the Missouri Valley Conference.

Any offense from the frontcourt will be a bonus as Butler’s perimeter players are expected to carry the brunt of the scoring load, but Nze and Smits will have to provide defense and rebounding for the Bulldogs to be successful. For a few years now they have struggled to compete against teams with big, physical post players. It will be interesting to see how Smits fits into a Butler defense that has long been characterized by undersized centers like Matt Howard and Tyler Wideman.

Tough Schedule

Everybody knows the BIG EAST conference slate is demanding, but Butler also has a challenging non-conference schedule chock-full of high-major opponents. By the end of the year, the Bulldogs may have one of the highest strength of schedule rankings in the country. This can be a blessing, as Butler will have an abundance of resume-building opportunities, but for a team that couldn’t find any consistency last year, it will likely be more of a curse.

Butler’s roster turnover and lingering doubts after last year’s performance might cause the Bulldogs to start slow and they may find themselves already far from the bubble before conference play begins. If they take beatings out of conference that further damage what is already a fragile confidence, they might not be ready to bring it in BIG EAST play.

On the other hand, facing challenge after challenge from early in the season may forge Butler into a tough, well-executing team. Additionally, they may pick up wins out of conference that will propel them to an NCAA Tournament bid even if their in-conference resume is shaky. It’s hard to predict how this schedule will affect the season, but at this point it is likely more intimidating than exciting for the Butler faithful.

Outlook

Considering all the factors, the outlook seems to be mostly bleak for the Butler Bulldogs this year, with a few glimmers of hope. Butler’s inconsistency and poor execution last year coupled with this year’s roster turnover and a difficult schedule make for a challenging season. There are doubts about the talent on the roster and the adequacy of the coaching staff.

That being said, any college basketball fan knows that counting out the Butler Bulldogs is something you should never do. If Baldwin and Tucker can step up and be the dynamic duo Butler hoped they would be and if Nze and Smits can shore up the holes in the Bulldogs’ interior defense, Coach Jordan’s squad might surprise.