Butler basketball is in a new era. After becoming one of America’s darlings with their back-to-back runs to the national championship game in 2010-11, the Bulldogs said goodbye to head coach Brad Stevens, who signed a lucrative five-year deal to rebuild the Boston Celtics. The post-Stevens era has not gone well. In spite of seeming to have enough talent on hand to compete, Butler is struggling along at 12-9, and 2-7 in the newly revised Big East Conference. Let’s look at why…
The Bulldogs were hit with an injury in early November, losing forward Roosevelt Jones for the season. I don’t mean to minimize the impact—Jones averaged 10 ppg—but it shouldn’t have been enough to turn a potential conference championship contender into a league also-ran.
Kellen Dunham averages 18 ppg, and the 6’6” sophomore hits a respectable 38 percent from behind the arc. His problem has been inside the three-point line, where 39 percent doesn’t cut it. Dunham has the ability to be as good as any player in the Big East, save Creighton’s Doug McDermott, and Butler needs to hope that Dunham can play more efficiently. Khyle is similar to Dunham—he goes 6’6” and averages 16 ppg. The Dunham-Marshall duo is where the Bulldogs go for points.
There’s not lot of offense beyond these two, though Kameron Woods does get nine boards a game. The player that needs to step up inside is 6’8” senior Erik Fromm, averaging 7 points/4 rebounds a game. At the very least, if Fromm is only going to shoot 28 percent from trey range, he needs to stay inside the arc.
Three-point shooting is a problem in general, something underscored by the fact that Elijah Brown’s primary role on this team is to shoot the trey, and he’s only at 32 percent. The lack of the three-ball hurts you in close games and Butler has had more than their share—the Bulldogs have already played four overtime games, going 1-3.
Before you think that’s just a case of bad luck, keep in mind that all four games were at home and one of them was against DePaul, the only Big East team that’s truly hopeless. Butler allowed the Blue Demons to shoot 58 percent from the floor, an almost incomprehensible display of bad defense.
Maybe going on the road is what the Bulldogs needs, and they started a three-game road swing with an ugly win at Seton Hall. Up next is a game at Marquettetomorrow night, and then a trip to Georgetown. Let’s say Butler splits those two and then comes home and gets wins over Xavier and Creighton. The latter is leading the pack in the Big East, so it’s a tall order, but that also makes Creighton exactly the kind of team that Butler has to be hungry to beat and build their NCAA Tournament resume.
I’ll be on hand for the Butler-Marquette game in Milwaukee tomorrow night, as we take my godson out to see his beloved Bulldogs (he rode Butler to success in our NCAA Tournament pool at the age of six. We start them young in this social circle). He better be the good luck charm before it’s too late.
The top of the Atlantic 10 has already made some noise this season, with new kid Butler combining with traditional conference power Temple to spring some national wins. Butler beat Indiana and Temple knocked off Syracuse. So it’s the Bulldogs and Owls that will begin our overview of Atlantic 10 basketball, as league play tips off about the same time this article goes online.
Butler: The Bulldogs are led by point guard Rotnei Clark, who provides both senior leadership and some serious offensive punch. He averages 16 ppg and can get it done off the dribble and from behind the arc. He’s joined by a developing pair of wingmen in freshman Kellen Dunham and sophomore Roosevelt Jones. Both are double-digit scorers. The ultimate key to this otherwise smallish team will be the play of 6’11” Andrew Smith. The senior is averaging 11 points/5 rebounds per night. The scoring is fine, but the boardwork has to improve if Butler is going to win this league.
Temple: Athleticism is the story of the day for the Owls, with Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee being high quality forwards that combine to average 33 points/21 rebounds a night. Khalif Wyatt gives quality work running the offense, scoring and distributing. I think Temple is the best team in the Atlantic 10, but the one weakness that could sink them is a lack of three-point shooting. At the very least, some underdog will get hot on a couple occasions and outgun from three. But over the long haul of the conference schedule, Temple’s talent will prevail.
CONTENDING FOR THE DANCE
The Atlantic 10 can typically count on multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, and even getting four teams is a reasonable hope, especially now that the league has ballooned to 16 overall. The downside to that? There are a whole lot of teams that are fairly close to each other, making for a competitive race. All of these teams should have March Madness in their mind and a few could sneak up on Butler and Temple.
Virginia Commonwealth: The darlings of 2011 again made the NCAA last year and won a game. Like Butler, they’re a newcomer to the Atlantic 10 and the Rams have the horses to compete. VCU is heavily oriented to the perimeter, with Trereon Graham and Troy Daniels leading the way, and Daniels providing the three-piont shooting. The depth is there to play any pace, but while Juvonte Reddic does a good job down low, with 14/7 per game average, he needs some help.
St. Joe’s: It’s been a disappointing non-conference year for a team that closed strong last season and brought everybody back. But even in disappointment, St. Joe’s still beat Notre Dame and Phil Martinelli has a well-balanced team. Langston Galloway and Carlo Jones can each handle the ball and score in the backcourt, with C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts being a quality post duo. A little bit better three-point shooting would be nice, but even without that, this team can be better than what they’ve shown and I expect to see it in conference play.
Charlotte: The personnel doesn’t impress you, but the only losses are to Miami and Florida State, so it’s tough to say for sure how good the 49ers are. Chris Braswell is a solid presence at forward, and freshman Willie Clayton is rebounding. If some backcourt offense can be pieced together, Charlotte has enough wind at its back to get into the NCAA.
St. Louis: Rick Majerus’ sad passing cast a shadow over the non-conference season. Now the Billikens will try and make run in honor of their late coach. They beat a good New Mexico team on New Year’s Eve. The leader of the team is Mike McCall, the little 6’0” guard who’s lights out from downtown and a deep frontcourt is led by Dwayne Evans and Cody Ellis. Ultimately, St. Loo wins from behind the arc. Ellis can step out and hit the three, as can McCall’s running mate, Jordair Jett. The risk is that what the three giveth, the three taketh away on nights when the touch is cold. St. Louis, like St. Joe’s, doesn’t have a lot of room for error in the push for an at-large bid after a slow start. The difference is that the Billikens might be cut some slack by the Selection Committee because of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding some early losses.
UMass: An intriguing team with arguably the league’s best guard in Chaz Williams, who knocks down 15 a night and averages seven assists, along with chipping in a few rebounds. At 5’9”, he’s the closest thing to Rajon Rondo that we’ll see in college basketball. Jesse Morgan is a quality running mate in the backcourt. The Minutemen have four players on the frontcourt, all of whom are doing just enough to be decent. If one or two step up and start grabbing eight boards a night, this team can make some noise.
LaSalle: The talent is there in the backcourt, with Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway each being very good at sticking the ball in the hole and both go to the glass well for their size. The Explorers need more like them, because sophomore Jerrell Wright is a lonely warrior underneath. LaSalle could compete with a similar type team in VCU, which is why I’m keeping them on the radar. And while the wins over Villanova, Nebraska and Penn State aren’t dazzling, they’re enough to tease.
These are programs with a history of winning and enough talent to think they could get on a run. Realistically, they’ll play the regular season for the NIT and the conference tournament for a longshot NCAA bid.
Xavier: It’s purely out of respect for their recent past as a contender, that the Musketeers get to stay this high. They’ve lost to teams like Wofford and Pacific, and this year a loss to Vanderbilt is terrible. But beyond Xavier’s tradition of winning, they do have a decent frontline, led by senior forward Travis Taylor. If a rebuilt backcourt of freshman Semaj Christon and sophomore Dee Davis can get rolling, so can Xavier.
Dayton: The Flyers actually have most of the pieces, with Kevin Dillard and Vee Sanford providing backcourt punch and Devin Oliver leading a respectable frontcourt. The problem is that the Flyers’ history of winning is accompanied by still underachieving, they lack three-point shooting and they’ve lost teams like USC and Weber State.
Richmond: Losses have piled up for the Spiders early on, and they’re barely over .500, so the prognosis isn’t great. But Darien Brothers, a guard who scores 16 ppg and hits more than half his shots behind the arc is great. And his running mate, Kendall Anthony isn’t far behind. Get them some frontcourt help and they’ll start winning. And get them hot for a tournament weekend and they could shock at the end of the year.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies sent center Andrew Nicholson, the Atlantic 10’s best player the last two years to the pros, and there’s nothing up front to replace him. Demetrius Conger, the wing player averaging a 14/7 is all that’s left.
Duquesne: Losses to Albany, North Dakota State, Robert Morris and UL-Lafayette tell you what you need to know. There aren’t even any good three-point shooters to give fans hope of that one magical night against a favorite when all the shots fall.
Rhode Island: Xavier Munford averages 18 ppg, and maybe trying to get him the scoring title should be the goal for the season.
George Washington: Isaiah Armwood is a nice scorer and rebounder at forward, but he’s a lonely man in the nation’s capital.
Fordham: The one team that’s already sunk, Fordham is 4-11. Oddly, they are the one team in this group with the talent to at least do a little more. Chris Gaston has been a good forward in this league for a couple years now, and sophomore Ryan Canty is getting after the glass. Branden Frazier can score and distribute in the backcourt. I won’t say “watch out for Fordham”, but they could win a few games.
Atlantic 10 basketball doesn’t have any ranked teams as of Sunday evening, but after the conference’s newest member, Butler, knocked off top-ranked Indiana in overtime yesterday, that’s likely to change. The A-10 is a consistently competitive league with some new additions. Can they make a national impact? We’re going to take a closer look at three teams—starting with Butler, then moving to fellow newcomer Virginia Commonwealth, both schools with recent runs to the Final Four. Then we’ll add in the league’s traditional power in Temple.
Butler: Even prior to Saturday’s neutral-floor upset, the Bulldogs had the makings of a good team. The only losses were at Xavier—another potential A-10 contender that I don’t mean to diss by not reviewing today—and at Illinois. Butler has a top-caliber point guard in Rotnei Clark, a senior transfer from Arkansas. He averages 18 points per game and is lights out from three-point range.
Clark then has three quality players arrayed on the wings, Kyhle Marshall, Roosevelt Jones and freshman Kellen Dunham. The all average around 10 ppg, and are good shooters from the floor. The Butler has a true post player in 6’11” senior Andrew Smith , something that will be a big security blanket in a lot of games this year.
The fact Butler’s almost certainly to be ranked next week is less important than the fact that they look like a team ready to return to the NCAA Tournament, after missing the Madness a year ago.
Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams made it back to the NCAAs a year ago, following up their stunning Final Four run of 2011, and they had some success, knocking off Wichita State, before losing to Indiana. VCU’s got a team that can shoot the ball, with everyone able to knock down the jumper and most of the core six players effective from three-point range.
Treveon Graham, a 6’5” sophomore, is the leading scorer at 15 ppg and also the one perimeter player whose game doesn’t depend on hitting from long range. He also gets five rebounds a game and provides board help to Juvonte Reddic, the 6’9” junior whose responsible for the inside. Head coach Shaka Smart has four guards he can move in and out, starting with Troy Daniels and also including Rob Brandenberg, Darius Theus and Briante Weber.
Smart deserves the benefit of the doubt in a competitive race, but I think the dependence on perimeter shooting and the lack of any depth in the post is going to be a problem for this team. VCU is good enough that, if the A-10 doesn’t pan out with any depth, they can win enough games to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. But if you end up with six or seven quality teams in this league, it could get dicey.
Temple: Another team who made it to the NCAAs last year, the Owls have been blown out by Duke so far this season, but also have a 15-point win over crosstown rival Villanova. They also have a lot of experience, with four seniors playing key roles.
The best of the seniors—and on the entire team for that matter—is Scootie Randall, the small forward who averages 15 points/8 rebounds a game. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, like Randall, is a 6’6” wingman and he can step out and hit the trey, to the tune of 48 percent. Another long-range threat is guard T.J. Di Leo, who hits half his shots from behind the arc. The Owls share VCU’s problem of a lack of post depth—there’s one quality player in sophomore Anthony Lee, but otherwise Temple is dependent on the perimeter.
Because of Temple’s experience, I like their chances of sustaining success through the long conference season more so than Virginia Commonwealth’s. But when you’re dependent on outside shooting, you’re going to lose some games to teams you otherwise wouldn’t, when you find a night when the shots just don’t fall.
The Atlantic 10 basketball race promises to be exciting and between now and when conference play begins after the New Year, TheSportsNotebook is going to take a closer look at other viable contenders. Xavier made the Sweet 16 last year and Charlotte is off to a 10-1 start. Dayton’s become a consistent winner, even if they don’t always make the NCAA Tournament and we’ll also look at St. Louis, as a program that won an NCAA game a year ago, now tries to transition after the sad passing of Rick Majerus.