Butler basketball reset: Bulldogs enter week 3-0 in Big East play for first time in program history

The Butler men’s basketball team huddles up during its victory over St. John’s on Dec. 31. Butler is 15-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big East. Xan Korman/Collegian file photo.

CHRIS BROWN | SPORTS EDITOR | cbbrown@butler.edu

Following its first win at Providence in nearly five years, the Butler men’s basketball team enters the week 3-0 in Big East play for the first time ever. The Bulldogs have shown the country their nonconference success was no fluke, and this week will look to pick up a seventh straight victory against the best team to come to Hinkle so far this season. In the first installment of our weekly reset, we get you caught up on all that’s happened in the last week, where things stand, and what lies ahead for Butler:

A look back

After a wild win at St. John’s and a convincing home victory over Creighton, Butler had just one conference game this past week, the first of two such weeks this season. The Bulldogs traveled to Providence to take on the Friars at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, where they were just 1-5 all-time. 

Butler hardly resembled the team that lost to Providence three times last season, leading for over 37 minutes en route to a 70-58 win. Kamar Baldwin and Jordan Tucker led the Bulldogs with 17 points each, and Bryce Golden and Bryce Nze also finished in double figures. Butler outrebounded the Friars 44-26, knocked down 50% of its 3-point attempts, and held Providence to just 32% from the field – including 24% beyond the arc – for the game. Another strong defensive effort and offensive contributions throughout were the story once again.

Standings, polls, and rankings

  • Butler in the Big East standings: 
    1. Seton Hall (4-0, 12-4)
    2. Butler (3-0, 15-1)
    3. Villanova (3-1, 12-3)
    4. Providence (3-1, 10-7)
  • AP Poll: 5th
  • Coaches Poll: 5th
  • NET rankings: 2nd
  • KenPom: 4th (25th AdjO, 6th AdjD) 
  • Sagarin: 10th

Butler moved up one spot from sixth to fifth in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Sports Coaches polls this week for two main reasons: 1) They won against a formidable opponent on the road, and most importantly, 2) a team above the Bulldogs in the rankings lost at home. Baylor, ranked fourth at the time, soundly defeated then-third-ranked Kansas on Jan. 11 for the Bears’ first ever win at Allen Fieldhouse. As a result, Kansas slipped to sixth while Auburn and Butler each moved up a spot to fourth and fifth, respectively, in this week’s AP poll. Gonzaga, Baylor and Duke make up the top three.

Bracketology breakdown

In their most recent bracketology, both on Jan. 10, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm both had Butler as a one seed in the Midwest region. A few other bracketology sites, like Brackettville, have the Bulldogs as a two seed in their most recent update.

Other key storylines

Elite defense, particularly in the first half: Butler’s defense has undoubtedly been its calling card this season. The Bulldogs are allowing just 54.4 points per game, the fourth-best mark in the nation, and are sixth at KenPom in defensive efficiency. In the Bulldogs’ three conference games, opponents are shooting just under 35% from the field and roughly 20% from beyond the arc.

The Bulldogs’ defense in the first half recently has been especially impressive. In the first half of its last six games, Butler has held its opponents to just 23% from the field and an average of just over 18 points. LaVall Jordan and his players have talked multiple times this season about the importance of jumping out to strong starts and setting the tone early, and that’s exactly what the team’s been doing, particularly of late.

Turnover troubles: After committing single digit turnovers in their first five games this season, the Bulldogs have committed ten or more in 10 of their last 11 contests. Butler’s mark of 11.4 turnovers per game is still in the top 30 nationally, but the Bulldogs have struggled significantly in that department in two of their first three conference games. 

Against St. John’s, an aggressive defensive team, Butler nearly suffered an epic collapse, in significant part due to 24 turnovers, the most the team had committed in a game since at least 2010. Butler turned the ball over just seven times against Creighton in their conference home opener, but then committed 17 turnovers at Providence, which prevented them from potentially pulling away earlier in the game. Unlike versus St. John’s, the majority of Butler’s turnovers were due to sloppy mistakes or passes rather than from getting caught in full-court pressure. 

Trending up

Jordan Tucker: It’s not the role the Duke transfer likely envisioned himself in, but the junior forward has shown great abilities in a sixth-man role this season, particularly in recent weeks. Against Providence, Tucker scored a season-high 17 points on 7-of-11 from the field, knocking down three 3-pointers and also tallying six rebounds. He’s now averaging just over 10 points in his last six contests. Tucker has also shown significant strides defensively, playing more aggressively, making fewer mistakes, taking charges and forcing turnovers. He still has shown himself prone to stretches with too many turnovers, but over the team’s recent stretch, Tucker has shown himself to be a strong weapon off the bench for the Bulldogs.

Trending down

Aaron Thompson: Frankly, there’s no player on this roster who’s recent play is extremely troublesome. But since we’re in a situation to nitpick, let’s take a look at Aaron Thompson. The junior guard is averaging just under six points in the team’s three conference games, but that’s not the problem. For most of nonconference play, Thompson was regularly tallying around five or six assists. He’s been one of the best guards in the country as far as running an offense and distributing the ball. But in each of the team’s first three Big East games, Thompson posted no more than three assists. He’s also turned the ball over more than usual, tallying six turnovers against St. John’s and four against Providence. While neither of these trends is of great concern, it’s something to monitor moving forward.

A look ahead

Butler will begin its week with a home matchup against the only other team undefeated in Big East play, the Seton Hall Pirates. Seton Hall boasts wins over Georgetown, Xavier and Marquette, and is back in the AP Top 25 this week for the first time in over a month. The Pirates, picked by the conference’s coaches in the preseason to win the Big East, are 13th at KenPom and 19th in the NET rankings. Senior guard Myles Powell is the conference’s second-leading scorer with 21.5 points per game. As stated, Seton Hall is the best team to come to Hinkle thus far this season. The Bulldogs have won two straight at home against the Pirates, and will look to make it three in a row at Hinkle on Wednesday.

In their second game of the week, the Bulldogs will travel to Chicago to take on DePaul at 1 p.m. on Jan. 18. The Blue Demons are 0-3 and the only team in the Big East without a conference win. DePaul is 53rd at KenPom in defensive efficiency but 113th in offensive efficiency. The Bulldogs have won 11 straight games against the Blue Demons, who were picked to finish last in the preseason coaches poll.

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