Butler basketball reset: Bulldogs look to bounce back after 0-2 week

Jordan Tucker dribbles up the court. Tucker posted a double-double against Seton Hall and scored in 13 points in the loss to DePaul. Chandler Hart/Collegian file photo. 

CHRIS BROWN | SPORTS EDITOR | cbbrown@butler.edu

A lot has changed for the Butler men’s basketball team in the last week. Seven days ago, the Bulldogs were 3-0 to start Big East play, on a six-game winning streak and had only lost one game all season. Butler had reached the fifth spot in the AP Top 25 and USA Today Sports Coaches Polls, both in-season program bests. 

In the past week, the Bulldogs dropped two games in a row for the first time this season, falling by eight at home against 18th-ranked Seton Hall, the Big East preseason favorite, and by 13 on the road to DePaul, which was winless in league play prior to the matchup. With the losses, Butler has fallen outside the top 10 in both major polls.

While the losses were certainly disappointing, it’s the play in those games that’s much more concerning while looking forward. For the Bulldogs to get the train back on the tracks, they’ll need to reverse some recent troubling trends and get back to the fundamentals that helped lead to their best start in over a decade. In this week’s Butler basketball reset, let’s look back at what went wrong, where things stand now, and what lies ahead:

A look back

Butler started this past week with a home contest against the Pirates, the best team to visit Hinkle Fieldhouse this season to date. Myles Powell scored 29 points, the most of any player against the Bulldogs this season, and three other players – Quincy McKnight, Romaro Gill and Jared Rhoden – combined for 41 points as Seton Hall won 78-70. Aaron Thompson played just three minutes in the second half due to foul trouble, and Butler had no answer for Romaro Gill. The 7-foot-2-inch Seton Hall center scored 15 points in the second half and only missed one shot all game while forcing LaVall Jordan to play Derrik Smits more than usual with Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden simply not tall enough to guard him effectively.

The Bulldogs then traveled to Chicago to face the Blue Demons, who were at the time the only Big East team without a conference win. After taking Villanova to overtime in its previous game, DePaul outplayed Butler on both ends of the court en route to a 79-66 upset. The Bulldogs started slow offensively, making just two of their first 12 shots, and quickly found themselves down 22-6. DePaul junior forward Paul Reed knocked down eight of his nine field goal attempts and tallied 23 points. Butler struggled to defend the perimeter, allowing the Blue Demons to shoot nearly 60% from beyond the arc. Other key factors: Butler turned the ball over 17 times and committed 23 fouls.

Standings, polls, and rankings

  • Butler in the Big East standings:
    1. Seton Hall (6-0, 14-4)
    2. Villanova (4-1, 14-3)
    3. Providence (4-2, 11-8)
    4. Butler (3-2, 15-3)
    5. Creighton (3-3, 14-5)
    6. Marquette (3-3, 13-5)
  • AP Top 25 Poll: 13th
  • USA Today Sports Coaches Poll: 12th
  • NET rankings: 7th
  • KenPom: 11th (26th AdjO, 17th AdjD)
  • Sagarin: 24th

This marked the first week this season Butler has fallen in either the AP or coaches poll. While this drop seems relatively appropriate – Seton Hall is among the top teams in the country and DePaul, as evidenced by impressive nonconference victories over Minnesota, Iowa and Texas Tech, is better than its conference record suggests – the national polls were more reactive than the major metrics. The NET rankings, a significant factor in NCAA Tournament seeding, still show Butler as a top 10 team, while the Bulldogs are just outside the top 10 at KenPom. Butler dropped just one spot in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom in the past week, but it fell from sixth to 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency – more on that in a moment.

Bracketology breakdown

Bracketologists have certainly reacted to Butler’s rough week, albeit not drastically. This time last week, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm both had the Bulldogs as a one seed in the tournament. Palm now has Butler as a four seed in the Midwest region in his Jan. 20 update, while Lunardi had the Bulldogs as a two seed in his most recent update, which was prior to the loss at DePaul. For NBC Sports, Dave Ommen has Butler as a three-seed in his Jan. 20 update.

Other key storylines

Defensive struggles: For most of the season, two things that have been consistent when it comes to Butler basketball are elite defense and a lack of mistakes, particularly compounding mistakes. Defensively, this Butler team, which hadn’t given up 70 points in a game this season, surrendered back-to-back worst marks of 78 and 79 points to Seton Hall and DePaul, respectively. Perimeter defense in particular was an issue against the Blue Demons, who shot nearly 60% – 10-of-17 – from beyond the arc against Butler. As mentioned, the Bulldogs fell 11 spots in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings in the past week.

Sloppy mistakes: There appears to be no one major reason behind Butler’s defensive struggles, but rather a number of key factors. Some involve poor play from individual players, but there are also multiple overall team play concerns. But let’s start with this: Nearly 30% of the points Butler has given up in its last two games have come from the free throw line. The Pirates were 21-of-25 from the charity stripe while the Blue Demons were 25-of-32. Those were the first two games this season where Butler’s opponent scored 20 or more points on free throws. The Bulldogs looked uncharacteristically caught off guard at times in their last two games, fouling jump shooters and getting to their spots late, resulting in occasions of sticking an arm or a leg in while a player was driving to the basket.

The Bulldogs’ recent turnover problems also continued this past week. Butler coughed up the ball 11 times against Seton Hall, but a more alarming 17 times at DePaul, which was a major factor in Butler never being able to make up any real ground against the Blue Demons in the second half. Butler has now committed 17 or more turnovers in three of its five conference contests. That high rate of turnovers not only hurts offensively, but also puts significantly more pressure on a defense which has shown major cracks in the last week.

Trending up

Jordan Tucker: The junior forward has continued to impress in a sixth-man role in recent play, scoring 14 points vs. Seton Hall and 13 at DePaul. Tucker has now scored in double digits in four of the team’s five Big East games, and is shooting 52% from the field during that period, ninth-best in the Big East. Combine that with the defensive improvements Tucker has shown this season, and head coach LaVall Jordan has a go-to multi-dimensional player at his disposal off the bench.

Trending down

Aaron Thompson: The facilitator of the Bulldogs offense and one of the best defensive guards in the country, Thompson has continued to struggle in Big East play. As mentioned, Thompson missed most of the second half against Seton Hall due to foul trouble. He finished that contest with six points and only three assists. Against the Blue Demons, Thompson tallied six assists, but also turned the ball over five times. Butler will need Thompson to get back on track in a hurry, as they’ll need his defensive presence against teams with great guards like Villanova, and him cutting down on sloppy passes will undoubtedly benefit the team on the offensive end.

A look ahead 

To avoid a third straight loss, the Bulldogs will have to take down Villanova on the road on Jan. 21. The Wildcats have won the last four games between these two teams dating back to Feb. 2018. Villanova is ninth in this week’s AP Top 25 but 27th at KenPom. Read our full preview for everything you need to know going into the matchup.

Butler will return to Hinkle Fieldhouse to host the Marquette Golden Eagles on Friday, Jan. 24. Marquette is 13-5 on the season and 3-3 in Big East play, with victories over Xavier and Georgetown in its most recent games. The Golden Eagles, currently 32nd at KenPom and 30th in the NET rankings, defeated the Bulldogs by double digits twice last season.

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