The Bulldogs huddle up during a game. Butler went 16-17 this season. Jimmy Lafakis/Collegian file photo.
JOSH MULLENIX | STAFF REPORTER | firstname.lastname@example.org
Over the last three years, Butler basketball fans have grown accustomed to two things: winning seasons, and at least one victory in the NCAA Tournament. The 2018-19 Butler men’s basketball team delivered neither this season.
The Bulldogs went 16-17 overall and 7-11 in the Big East, finishing last in the conference. The last time Butler finished under .500 was the 2013-14 season. It was the school’s first year in the Big East and they finished 14-17.
Despite a brutal 4-14 conference record in 2014, the Bulldogs still finished ninth thanks to an even worse DePaul team that finished 3-15. Due, in large part, to a stronger bottom of the conference than in 2014, Butler finished last in the Big East for the first time in program history.
To cap it off, the Bulldogs lost in the Big East Tournament to Providence, missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years and made a first-round exit from the National Invitation Tournament.
What happened? Where did the Bulldogs struggle the most and what dictated their success?
On the offensive end, the story was the same all season long. The Bulldogs lived and died with the 3-pointer. Other than Kamar Baldwin, the Bulldogs littered the perimeter with players that were one-dimensional offensive threats. Paul Jorgensen, Sean McDermott and Jordan Tucker were at their best when they were knocking down shots. When they weren’t, they had little to no impact on the offensive end.
McDermott knocked down four or more 3-pointers eight times this season. In those games, he averaged 18.5 points per game. However, in the 25 games he made three or less, he averaged just 6.7 points per game.
To be clear, McDermott is not to blame for Butler’s offensives struggles this season, but his numbers exhibit the dilemma Butler found themselves in due to a lack of diverse offensive players on its roster.
What this translates to is that Butler struggled to win games when they did not shoot the ball well. Coupled with the fact that Butler’s interior presence was inconsistent at best, opposing defenses only had one thing to focus on.
In Butler’s 16 wins, they went 168-of-409 from beyond the 3-point line, or 41 percent. Just for fun, that would’ve put the Bulldogs among the top five in the country in 3-point field goal percentage if only those 16 games counted towards their 3-point percentage for the season.
When Butler knocked down shots, defenses had to worry about sharpshooters like McDermott and Jorgensen as well as keeping Baldwin and Thompson from getting to the rim.
On the other hand, Butler was abysmal from 3-point range in the 17 games they lost. Over 17 games, they took 418 3-pointers, making just 124 of them. In other words, the Bulldogs knocked down just 29 percent of their 3-point attempts in their losses, which would be good enough for 347th, out of 351 teams, nationally.
The way the Bulldogs guarded the 3-point line was crucial to success as well. When the Bulldogs won the battle at the 3-point line, they were 14-3. Winning the 3-point line is defined, in this case, as shooting a better percentage from beyond the arc than their opponent.
However, Butler was not the better perimeter team consistently. At season’s end, they were 261st in the country in defensive 3-point percentage. Opponents shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc against the Bulldogs.
Butler’s dependency on the 3-point line stems from their lack of interior presence this season. The loss of Tyler Wideman had a bigger impact on the Bulldogs than anticipated. His departure left a hole in the Bulldogs interior that resulted in a one-dimensional Butler team.
The Bulldogs ranked near, if not at, the bottom of the conference in multiple rebounding statistics. They were ninth in the Big East in rebounding margin, losing the rebounding battle by an average of 2.3 boards per game. Similarly, the Bulldogs ranked eighth in the Big East in offensive rebounds per game and last in defensive rebounds, grabbing just 23 per contest.
Teams who rebound the ball at a high level have abilities to win games even when they don’t shoot well. The Bulldogs put themselves in a tough position from the get-go not being a good rebounding team, but when paired with a team standing on a foundation of good shooting and little else, it’s easy to understand why Butler looked awful in some games this season.
Against Saint Louis in its first road game of the season, Butler only managed 52 points against a team that finished sixth in the A-10 this season. They went 4-of-24 from the 3-point line and gave up 41 rebounds to the Billikens. As a result, Saint Louis only needed 64 points to win by 12.
In possibly the worst performance of the season, Butler lost to the Florida Gators 77-43. In that game, the Bulldogs only knocked down five 3-pointers to Florida’s 10 and got outrebounded by 28.
There were times this season Butler looked like an NCAA Tournament team. But, without fail, those times only came when they were shooting the ball well. Teams that play deep into March find ways to win games in multiple ways, and Butler struggled mightily with trying to find a second way to win a game this season.
Whether or not these problems will continue into next season is yet to be seen. There are reasons to believe that next year’s version of Butler will be more dynamic.
Milwaukee transfer Bryce Nze, who sat out this season, brings what could be a bigger presence on the interior. He set single season records at Milwaukee his sophomore year in rebounds per game, total rebounds and offensive rebounds. As long as his game translates to the Big East level, Nze provides more rebounding alongside Joey Brunk.
On the offensive end, incoming freshman Khalif Battle and rising junior Christian David will likely cover the minutes vacated by Jorgensen. Both players are more dynamic and can add a different to dimension to the offensive end that Jorgensen didn’t.
While Battle can shoot, he’s more dangerous as a slasher and driver standing at 6-foot-5 with lots of athleticism. David’s sample size is small, but he does a lot of little things on the offensive end and knocks down a three every once in a while.
Butler’s roster is going to look very similar next season. If the Bulldogs are going to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, it starts with using the departure of some and the addition of others to make sure the shortcomings of this season don’t continue into 2019-20.