Players, coaches weigh in on first Big East season

MATTHEW VANTRYON | Asst. Sports Editor IMG_4940

The Butler men’s basketball team’s 2013-2014 season has mirrored the transformation of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

After a 10-2 start in non-conference play, it appeared the Bulldogs’ inaugural season in the Big East Conference might be one for the history books.

The team has struggled out of the gate in conference play, however, attaining a 2-7 record prior to six days off last week.

The Bulldogs have proved they can stick with their Big East foes, having played in four overtime games so far in conference action. The bright spots have included sophomore guard Kellen Dunham averaging 17.6 points per game and the Bulldogs leading the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1:13.

However, the team’s deficiencies have also been duly noted—including a dead-last Big East ranking in free throw percentage.

Junior forward Kameron Woods said the biggest teaching point from the first half of conference play has been focusing on doing things right from the tip to the final buzzer.

“If you don’t play at your best ability every night, you can go on runs where you don’t get the results you want at the end of the game,” Woods said. “The competition is a lot more even (in the Big East), so if you don’t play well things aren’t going to go well for your team.”

Depth is also proving to be an issue for the Bulldogs. Dunham is averaging nearly 37 minutes per game. Meanwhile, freshman guard Elijah Brown leads the bench with an average of 18.6 minutes per game.

Woods, who averages 34 minutes per game, said the big minutes played by starters not only affects the players from a physical standpoint, but also affects them mentally by adding pressure.

“I’m a bit more tired after games,” Woods said. “It can wear on you if you don’t take care of your body the right way.

“If we’re (in foul trouble, we are) putting our team in a tough situation, but at the same time you have to be aggressive and physical because that’s what it takes to win games.”

Butler’s late-game struggles have been well documented. Coach Brandon Miller said execution on the court starts in practice.

“We have areas where we need to improve, having a mindset and focus to practice well,” the first-year head coach said. “Not only having the guys who are playing major minutes practice well, but having everyone practice well.”

Brown echoed Miller’s sentiment regarding practice, saying good practices lead to execution on the court.

“How you practice every day is how you’ll play in games,” Brown said.

Miller has continued to preach defense to his squad, noting the size and athleticism of Butler’s conference competition.

“It’s a defensive-minded conference,” Miller said. “There are a number of teams that can really defend because of the depth they have on the floor and because of their size. If you can get stops in a close game, you’ll always have a chance to win.”

Looking ahead, the Bulldogs finish a three-game road trip on Saturday at Georgetown, before returning home to face Xavier and Creighton next week.

Woods said playing teams for a second time benefits both squads, and the team is hungry to prove itself a second time.

“There’s a lot of film that we can watch,” Woods said. “Some of the games that were really close, you want to go out there and compete again.”

Butler has four road games remaining, including one against a nationally-ranked Villanova team. The Bulldogs also host No. 20 Creighton at home next week.

But the team is not fazed. Brown said the team is aware of the challenges it faces and is ready to face them head on

“(The early struggles are) kind of a blessing in disguise,” Brown said. “We know what we did wrong, (and) we’re trying to correct our mistakes. We’ve been better in practice, (and) I think the second half (of the conference schedule) will be better for us.”

Woods said team morale remains high despite the in-conference struggles.

“We have a lot of competitors in the locker room,” Woods said. “A lot of guys aren’t as down as you might think. Everyone’s excited to get back to where we were at the beginning of the year.”

Miller said the key is to string together complete possessions and games from start to finish.

“We’ve played good basketball,” Miller said. “We need to string together more positive possessions, more games where we play for the entire 40 minutes, but our focus isn’t on wins and losses or the standings. We’re focused on getting better.”