MATTHEW VANTRYON | Asst. Sports Editor
The Butler men’s basketball team went into this year’s basketball campaign with more questions than answers. The Bulldogs concluded their season with the same predicament.
The first question was the move to the Big East—a conference swept up in its own flurry of changes. “Out with the old, in with the new” was the new motto for the legendary basketball conference.
The program was further flipped on its head when then-coach Brad Stevens announced in July he was departing for the National Basketball Association. Within 24 hours, the Bulldogs found their replacement, and Brandon Miller was immediately placed under a microscope.
Then, in perhaps the most devastating blow leading to this season’s sub-.500 result, junior Roosevelt Jones went down for the season with a wrist injury in the first game of the team’s Australia tour.
Nevertheless, for the first two months of the season, it was as if nothing had changed for the team that captured America’s heart four years ago.
Butler compiled a 10-2 non-conference record, the only losses coming in back-to-back games in the Old Spice Classic. Those losses came by a combined four points.
Highlighting the non-conference slate was a 76-69 win over Washington State in which sophomore guard Kellen Dunham and senior forward Khyle Marshall combined to score 62 of the team’s 76 points.
Any memories of Horizon League competition were quickly erased as Butler opened their conference schedule versus Villanova on New Year’s Eve in front of a sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse.
A frenzied crowd witnessed a 76-73 Villanova overtime win, but many wondered if the team was poised to defy expectations and make another tournament run.
Those dreams quickly faded as the team proceeded to drop its next four contests. The Bulldogs consistently put themselves in a position to win, but had trouble sealing the deal.
While no season can be determined by one game in January, momentum can switch in that time. Such was the case when Butler hosted DePaul on Jan. 9. Butler had an 11-point lead with less than four minutes to play, but the Blue Demons finished the contest on an 11-0 run.
Butler ended up dropping the contest in double-overtime. Assistant coach Terry Johnson said he saw the game as one that hurt the confidence of the team.
“If we win that DePaul game, I don’t think we go into overtime versus Georgetown,” Johnson said. “The guys would have that confidence.”
Butler grabbed its first conference win versus Marquette in its sixth game of the conference season, but the Bulldogs were already in the cellar.
The season would only get worse, as Butler dropped nine of its next 10 contests. The team suffered through a winless February before winning its last two regular season games.
A loss to Seton Hall in the opening road of the Big East Tournament swiftly slammed the door on the program’s first Big East season.
While coach Brandon Miller said the losing wore on the team, he added it never gave up.
“When you lose a game, it hurts. When you lose close games, it wears on you and takes a lot out of you,” Miller said. “I think our guys carried a confidence about them. How confident we would have been if we did win some of those close games, you’d be speculating.”
While no one thing can be the culprit for the team’s struggles this season, several things stood out.
All season long, Butler had a propensity for close games. Unfortunately, it consistently found itself on the wrong end of the scoreboard. Butler lost seven games by six points or fewer or in overtime.
One explanation for this problem could be attributed to a lack of depth. A case study would be Dunham. Dunham averaged more than 36 minutes per game this season. He was often the first option on offense for the Bulldogs, and excelled early in the season. However, he eclipsed the 20-point threshold only twice in the team’s final 14 games of the season.
As one of the few offensive threats, a lull in scoring from the sophomore often spelled trouble.
Johnson said the return of Jones to the court next season should give the Bulldogs another threat to score, in addition to other facets of his game.
“Jones was a leader, a work-ethic guy, and him going down took some morale out,” Johnson said. “He’s physical. Butler has been known for being physical, and we just didn’t have enough bodies this year. Roosevelt was key to that. Having him back will help everyone out.”
In addition to a possible lack of depth, Butler struggled from the free-throw line.
Butler shot 66 percent from the line as a team this season. Their opponents shot a shade under 70 percent. The points added up. Butler’s record when shooting a lower percentage than their opponent from the line was 2-8.
Despite the negatives on the court, Butler did have several bright spots emerge on which it can build in the future.
Freshman forward Andrew Chrabascz garnered Big East All-Rookie honors after averaging 6.3 points-per-game. He saw limited minutes during the beginning of the season, but saw 22.8 minutes of action during conference play after being inserted into the starting lineup.
Fromm praised Chrabascz’s ability to learn quickly and said it will continue to pay dividends down the road.
“Andrew is one of the fastest learners I’ve ever played with,” Fromm said. “There’s a reason he came into the starting lineup, for how quickly he was getting adapted to the game and rapidly his game was improving. I think that he will eventually be the epitome of The Butler Way. Through his career, you’ll look at him and say, ‘He’s Butler.’”
Dunham was named to the second-team All-Big East after ranking seventh in Big East scoring with 16.4 points per game. He scored in double-figures 24 times this season, and scored a career-high 32 points versus Washington State in the Old Spice Classic.
Marshall scored in double-figures a team-high 26 times and averaged nearly 15 points per game.
Junior forward Kameron Woods led the Big East with 9.9 rebounds per game.
Junior guard Alex Barlow earned accolades during the Big East tournament. Barlow was named the Big East Men’s Basketball Scholar Athlete.
As the focus turns to next season, it remains to be seen how Butler will address the issues that plagued it this year.
Butler was consistently outmatched on the interior on both ends of the court this season. Incoming freshman Tyler Wideman, a 6’7 forward, could be a key piece to solving this issue.
The return of Jones, in addition to the development of Chrabascz and Barlow, could lessen the workload and improve Butler’s ability to score.
Butler has four open scholarships after the departures of Andrew Smeathers, Rene Castro, Devontae Morgan and Nolan Berry via transfer. How the Bulldogs’ staff chooses to fill these holes could go a long way in determining the success of the program in the years to come.
Despite the question marks looming over the program, there is no panic in basketball office at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The close games show that Butler is not far from being competitive, in Miller’s mind.
“Our team didn’t get the result that we wanted, but we’re close,” Miller said. “We have the players that we need on our team, the players that we have coming in. We just need to get three to four possessions better.”
Business will continue as usual, and expectations remain the same, Johnson said.
“The expectation is for Butler to be the best, period,” Johnson said. “Our ultimate goal is to win the national championship. What you did last year doesn’t matter.”