#37 Butler Preview 2018-19

-Jim Root

Key Returners: Kamar Baldwin, Aaron Thompson, Sean McDermott, Paul Jorgensen, Nate Fowler
Key Losses: Kelan Martin, Tyler Wideman
Key Newcomers: Jordan Tucker (Duke), Bryce Golden, Markeese Hastings


Outlook: New coach, another first round NCAA Tournament win. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a tourney opener since 2009 (the year before Brad Stevens grew to a coaching legend and Gordon Hayward nearly became a college basketball deity), as LaVall Jordan guided an efficient offensive squad safely into the Round of 32 once again. Okay, sure, they’ve missed the tourney twice in that span, but still – 7-0 in the first round over the last nine years is pretty damn good (cut to gamblers nodding happily)!

Like nearly every Big East squad, the Bulldogs lose a program mainstay, as 20ppg scorer Kelan Martin moves on to seek a role as a professional smallball 4. Martin’s presence was a large part of Butler’s offense – even though he wasn’t devastatingly efficient, he did hit 95 threes at a 36.4% clip while standing 6’7, 220 pounds, and his skill off the bounce created constant mismatches against slower forwards or smaller guards. The attention he demanded opened things up for ultra-productive complementary players like Sean McDermott (127.0 offensive rating, 24th nationally), Nate Fowler (124.1, 56th) and Paul Jorgensen (114.4, 375th).

The role of primary scorer/bucket-getter will now fall to Kamar Baldwin, a lanky guard who could be a sneaky Big East POY candidate if he rises to another level this year. He’s been plagued by less-than-ideal efficiency to this point in his career, primarily due to subpar finishing at the rim, an inability to draw fouls, and taking too many midrange jumpers. With even more offensive onus falling on his shoulders this season, he’ll need to remedy those issues while continuing to create for his teammates. He’ll be aided by playing off the ball more often thanks to the likely development of Aaron Thompson, a natural point guard who struggled with his shot and turnovers last year (as freshman PGs are wont to do). Thompson should be ready to take more of the ball-handling load, opening up Baldwin to score more off the catch and on the move, where he excels.  Interestingly, that combination struggled last year without Jorgensen on the floor, but Thompson's improvement should help:

Luckily for those two, they should once again have some floor spacing to work with, as McDermott and Jorgensen are constant threats from 25 feet and in (sometimes 30 feet for Jorgensen), and Butler adds 6’7 Duke transfer Jordan Tucker to the fold in December. Touted by many (including me!) as a shooter with size last year at Duke, he was instead placed inside a small, airtight box and buried deep in the bowels of Coach K’s doghouse to rot. He intelligently elected to transfer, and he should slot in perfectly as a stretch forward once eligible. He didn’t get to show it last year, but he’s a knockdown shooter, and his presence will help open driving lanes for the guards and space inside for Fowler and Joey Brunk. Junior wing Henry Baddley rarely shoots the ball, but he provides another threat after going 20/43 from deep last year.

Coach Jordan will hope to see some improvement defensively this year, as the Bulldogs have lagged at just 45th, 49th, and 97th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks over the past three seasons. They played almost exclusively man-to-man last year (94.5% of the time), and losing Martin to graduation may be some addition by subtraction on this end; as good as he was offensively, he was still a relatively plodding defender and offered no resistance at the rim. It would be nice to replace Tyler Wideman with a shot-blocker inside, but Fowler and Brunk are similarly ground-bound bigs, and newcomer Bryce Golden isn’t a shot-blocker either.

Instead, the defensive upside resides in the lanky backcourt of Baldwin and Thompson, both pesky on-ball defenders who can apply pressure and take away passing lanes from smaller guards. Butler’s defense was 10 points per possession better when those two played together compared to any other lineup, raising the team’s forced turnover rate by over 5%. Christian David also flashed potential as a strong defender in his limited minutes, and I’d expect to see a few more lineups featuring David as a smallball 4 this season.

Finally, the Bulldogs were a tremendous gang rebounding team on the defensive glass, and although they lose their two best individual boarders in Martin and Wideman, more minutes for the stout Brunk should help offset that.

Bottom Line: The Bulldogs lose some brawn, but relying more heavily on a deep, talented backcourt isn’t the worst thing in the world. Baldwin needs to be ready for even more defensive attention, and someone (Tucker? Jorgensen? McDermott?) needs to emerge alongside him as a consistent second weapon, but the pieces are once again here for an upper-tier offense (I’ll say top 35, personally). On the other end, Jordan needs to play as much of Thompson + Baldwin as he can, and Thompson’s likely development on offense makes that combination far more palatable on both ends. Butler likely slots into the NCAA Tournament as a 7-10 seed, providing another profitable chance to bet on them, although a wide open Big East casts a degree of uncertainty to their ultimate finish.