Butler Tries to Reload
by Jay Pearlman
INDIANAPOLIS – Four of five starters are gone, as well as five of the six Butler players logging 500 minutes, 144 out of 170 starts, two first team all-conference players (including Player of the Year Mike Green), 69 percent of points gone, along with 57 percent of its rebounds. And unlike Duke and North Carolina (which “select” rather than “recruit”), mid-majors rebuild rather than reload, relying on such things as “diamonds in the rough,” transfers, and – can I even speak the words – teaching and player development making average players better. Rarely good enough to go pro – and almost never early – mid-majors hold onto their players for four years – even five – and when the Kents, Vermonts and George Masons of the world play deep into the tournament, most often it’s with 23-year-old seniors playing against more talented 18 and 19-year-old underclassmen.
In my time watching the Colonial, Mason couldn’t reload; Anthony Grant probably won’t be able to reload at VCU when Eric Maynor leaves. John Cheney couldn’t reload at Temple; John Calipari couldn’t reload at Massachusetts (and likely can’t at Memphis, though we’ll see). Gonzaga is the exception that proves the rule, the only school in America outside the BCS conferences to appear in ten straight NCAA tournaments. Perhaps Butler is next.
The coach is second-year man Brad Stevens, who turned 32 barely a week ago. He is one of only six head coaches in history to win 30 games in his first Division I season, and one of only three mid-major coaches to do so (Bill Hodges had Larry Bird at Indiana State in 1978-79, and Stan Heath had all of Gary Waters’ players at Kent in 2001-02). In two glorious seasons the last two years, Butler played that slow deliberate style, relying on long-range shooting late in the shot clock, reminding of Princeton under Pete Carril, Dick Bennett while still at Green Bay. They were first in the conference in scoring defense more by holding the ball and limiting opposition possessions. (Didn’t Gary Walters’ Dartmouth team lead the nation in defense that way? Didn’t Bill Parcells win a Super Bowl over Buffalo much the same way?) Half of their shots were three-pointers last season, and they made 319 of them, 9th most in America, with a higher percentage – 38 percent – than seven of the eight teams ahead of them in total makes (all except Valparaiso).
I certainly didn’t need to go to a November 1st exhibition game against NAIA Division II Marian (well-coached, but no better than an average NCAA Division III team). But something drew me to Indianapolis this night, to venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse, to the “county seat” of the Horizon League, to a gym I’d only seen watching televised Butler games (and on the big screen when Gene Hackman coached there). Hardly Butler-like, they shot a dismal 23 percent from behind the arc (6-26), just 1 for 16 in the first half. Lefty Zach Hahn was 0-4 from long range (and looked like he’d miss forever), and Grant Leiendecker was just 1-3 (his form was better, suggesting that he’ll make a bunch during the season). Star sophomore center Matt Howard began the game with a power move to the goal finishing with his left, later in the first half cupped an offensive board in his right and thunder-dunked in one motion. Last year’s Newcomer of the Year and this year’s preseason all-league selection showed that he’s ready to challenge Josh Mayo and J’Nathan Bullock for conference Player of the Year, barely raising a sweat in scoring 14 (on 4-6 shooting) and grabbing 11 boards in 22 minutes. And then there were the freshman.
Shocking along press row, instead of familiar returnees Stevens started three frosh “guards” along with Howard and undersized 6-3 junior forward Willie Veasley. 6-0 Alabama point guard Ronald Nored (president of Butler’s freshman class) showed athleticism, penetration, and a strong handle in his 18 minutes (to go with a dynamic personality). Hardly the pure shooter Pete Campbell was last year, Lexington’s 6-3 Shelvin Mack showed that he’ll score from inside and out, continue to shoot, and after an 0-5 first half from behind the arc, he was 2-2 in the second half, finishing with 11 points and 5 boards in 25 minutes. And by conference play, these two should be better defensively than anyone was in last year’s backcourt.
Then there is 6-8 Gordon Hayward, the best player on last year’s Indiana 4A champs from Brownsburg. Having never heard his name until he was introduced to start, just one missed shot and thirty seconds of play told me that this young man is special, as special a mid-major freshman as I’ve seen. Told that he grew from 6-1 to 6-8 late in high school, that explains both why he’s a guard rather than a forward, and why – at least in part – the Big Ten missed him (I’m told John Beilen’s Michigan staff made a late run at Hayward after he committed to Butler in June of his junior year, but where was Kelvin Sampson’s IU staff?) Whatever the reasons he’s in the Horizon rather than the Big Ten, Hayward handles the ball like a guard, has tremendous second guard shooting form, tons of range, and terrific quickness and flexibility.
In his first college exhibition game, when he didn’t run basket-to-basket as aggressively as Howard did, I asked Butler SID Jim McGrath which of the two was faster; McGrath later asked the coaches, and reported back that it is indeed Hayward who runs better. In short, it appeared to this writer in the first minute of last night’s game that Hayward has the size, athleticism and skills to be a pro some day, perhaps even an NBA pro (and given his fair complexion, he just might not be done growing). What a great get for Coach Stevens! (Oh, Hayward scored 8 on 2-5 shooting – 2-4 from the arc – grabbed 2 boards, and had 2 assists and no turnovers in 23 minutes of action, but his statistics hardly tell the story).
So if you’re thinking of scheduling a game against Butler, I suggest playing them this year rather than next (yes, it’s undoubtedly too late to adjust this year’s schedule), and if possible play them early (December 4 seems just right for Cleveland State to get Butler in its own gym, but by the time the two teams meet at Hinkle on Saturday February 28, Butler just might be ready). And if you’re a Horizon fan looking for something to focus on during the team’s non-conference season, follow Bulldog freshman Gordon Hayward and decide how good he can be by the primary conference season in January, by this year’s Horizon Tournament, by each of the next three years, and by four years from now, when he could be earning his first paycheck for playing basketball.
Horizon news and notes
- It took half of my life to get there, but what a joy it was attending my first game at Hinkle! Those of you who’ve read my words before know I have a general preference for the way things were in the past to how they are now, and also that my “Mecca of college basketball” is Philadelphia’s Palestra. Well, having spent time in Bloomington, coached in Northwest Ohio, and lived for most of the 90s in Cleveland, how can I justify never before having attended a game in Hinkle? Opened in 1928, imperfectly lit for television, tall and open and airy and steeped in history, well, I just might like it even more than the Palestra, a gym I’ve been in nearly fifty times. For now, let’s call it a dead heat, and as the Governor of California is fond of saying, “I’ll be back.”
- After just a few practices at CSU and a single exhibition game at Butler, I find myself focusing on the new college three-point line, one foot further out than last year’s. First, keep that increased distance in mind as you evaluate players’ and teams’ shooting statistics, as three-point percentages should come down, period. Second, if the Butler exhibition is any indication, those percentages should be down precipitously early this season, as both players’ muscle memories and coaches’ strategies are adjusted to the new distance. Third, I love the new greater distance, as it seems to separate “real outside shooters” from those less real.
- When the Horizon announced the schedule of games included in its ESPN television package (a package including conference telecasts on January and February Friday nights on ESPNU), I wondered why so many Butler games were chosen (particularly relative to those of preseason favorite Cleveland State). Well, at first I suspected it was carryover from recent years’ success (just as I suspect lots of you – particularly males – generally dress each morning based on yesterday’s weather). Then I thought it could be the fact that the conference office is in Indianapolis, subliminally affecting choices made there. And both of those reasons could provide part of the answer. But after watching the new look Butler Bulldogs last night, there is obviously one additional reason to suggest: the folks in the conference office may well have expected Butler to reload – perhaps they even evaluated its freshman class – and decided that this team is going to be good before very long, and interesting even sooner. While I don’t know how the conference will divide up television income from ESPN (even whether or not this package will generate any), selfishly this writer is now very pleased at the heavy Butler representation in this year’s TV package (living in Cleveland I will attend most of the CSU games in person anyway).
- If the rest of life cooperates, I’ll report from an exhibition game at Valparaiso next week.