Butler basketball reset: Bulldogs stop skid, but plenty of questions remain

Kamar Baldwin brings the ball down the court during a game this season. Baldwin and the Butler men’s basketball team take on Georgetown and Providence this week. Chandler Hart / Collegian file photo.

CHRIS BROWN | SPORTS EDITOR | cbbrown@butler.edu

After snapping its three-game skid with a dramatic overtime victory, the Butler men’s basketball team will need to prove this week that it has found its footing once again. Without the facilitator of their offense and best defender, as well as a key piece of their rotation, the Bulldogs came from behind in a game they were on the path to losing to take down Marquette in overtime on Jan. 24 in their last game of last week.

While the win was undoubtedly significant in many ways, that in-and-of itself didn’t boost Butler’s NCAA Tournament chances or help propel the Bulldogs back up any major metrics or rankings. 

The true significance of the victory will more appropriately be measured with regard to its impact moving forward. Did the team really right the ship after a rough patch in which it exhibited a number of troubling trends – involving turnovers, fouls and defensive missteps? Or will the Bulldogs revert to some of those recent bad habits? These next few games will go a long way to determining the true impact of that victory.

In this week’s Butler basketball reset, let’s look back at the past week, where things stand now, and what lies ahead:

A look back

The Bulldogs began last week looking to halt what was then a two-game losing streak on the road against Villanova, the ninth-ranked team in the nation at the time. After turning the ball over 17 or more times in three of its first five Big East games, Butler committed a season-low five turnovers and held the Wildcats to just 38% from the field. It’s not often that you lose despite those two numbers, but the game wasn’t particularly close. 

No Bulldog besides Kamar Baldwin scored more than 11 points and Sean McDermott missed his first 10 shots, finishing 1-of-11 from the field. Butler was outrebounded for the first time since Dec. 10 and, perhaps most frustrating, the Bulldogs sent an opponent to the free throw line for more than 20 attempts for the third straight game. Villanova won 76-61.

Butler returned to Hinkle Fieldhouse to host Marquette on Jan. 24 looking to avoid its first four-game losing streak since 2014. Taking on the nation’s leading scorer, Markus Howard, without Aaron Thompson, who was dealing with a wrist injury, the Bulldogs trailed by four at halftime.

The biggest two things to know about the rest of the game: 1) After scoring 18 points in the first half, Howard was held to eight the rest of the way. 2) After scoring two points in the first half, Baldwin went off for 29 the rest of the game to finish with 31. The Bulldogs came from behind and defeated the Golden Eagles 89-85 in overtime. Sean McDermott and Henry Baddley finished second and third on the team with 16 and 10 points, respectively.

On Jan. 27, Baldwin was named Big East Player of the Week for the first time in his career. The senior guard averaged 21 points between the team’s two games.

Standings, polls and rankings

  • Butler in the Big East standings:
    1. Seton Hall (7-0, 15-4)
    2. Villanova (6-1, 16-3)
    3. Creighton (5-3, 16-5)
    4. Butler (4-3, 16-4)
    5. Marquette (4-4, 14-6)
    6. Providence (4-4, 11-10)
  • AP Top 25 Poll: 16th
  • USA Today Sports Coaches Poll: 17th
  • NET rankings: 9th
  • KenPom: 15th (32nd AdjO, 22nd AdjD)
  • Sagarin: 25th

Following a road loss to a top-25 opponent and a home win against an unranked team, the Bulldogs slipped slightly in the major polls and rankings systems. In the last week, Butler fell three spots in the Associated Press poll, five spots in the coaches poll, four spots in KenPom and just two spots in the NET rankings. All of those changes were roughly as expected. As previously stated, the results of this past week won’t play a major role in the way the Bulldogs are seeded in the NCAA Tournament come March.

Bracketology breakdown

Bracketologists also haven’t changed their stance on Butler much in the last week. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has the Bulldogs as a three seed in his Jan. 27 update, up from a four seed last week. In their most recent updates, on Jan. 24, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Butler seeded fourth, while Busting Brackets’ Lukas Harkins has the Bulldogs as a three seed.

Other key storylines

The injury bug: Health has generally been on the Bulldogs’ side this season. After some illnesses and injuries at the beginning of the season, Butler has remained, with a few notable exceptions, relatively injury free for most of the year. Until last week. 

Midway through the first half at Villanova, forward Christian David went down with a scary looking left knee injury. The next day, the team announced the junior had torn his ACL and would undergo surgery, sidelining him for the rest of the season. Despite averaging under three points per game off the bench, David’s versatility on the defensive end and gritty playing style earned him over 13 minutes per game as a key piece off the Butler bench. 

David’s injury wasn’t the only one suffered against the Wildcats. Shortly before the Bulldogs’ game against Marquette, the team announced that Aaron Thompson would sit out with a left wrist injury suffered three days prior. After the game, Butler head coach LaVall Jordan described the junior guard’s status as day-to-day, saying “we’ll just monitor and evaluate it every day.” It’s unclear if Thompson will be good to go in the Bulldogs’ next game.

McDermott back on track?: Sean McDermott has struggled to find his shooting stroke in Big East play. In nonconference play, McDermott shot an impressive 48% from beyond the arc. While that type of rate wasn’t going to last, prior to Butler’s game against Marquette, the redshirt junior was shooting just 25% on 3-point shots in Big East contests. It reached it’s roughest point at Villanova, when McDermott missed each of his first 10 shots and finished 1-of-11 from the field. 

Against Marquette, McDermott seemed to take a major step in the right direction. He finished second on the team with 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range. Hopefully, that was a sign that McDermott has broken out of the shooting slump he’s been dealing with for most of the last month.

Trending up

Henry Baddley: Prior to Butler’s most recent game, the senior guard/forward was averaging just under 10 minutes and two points per game this season. With David out for the season, it appeared Baddley would be in line for a slightly increased role, particularly for his defensive abilities. With Thompson sidelined against the Golden Eagles, Baddley’s importance in that game increased another level, and he delivered. 

Together, Baddley and Baldwin held Howard to his second-lowest scoring output of conference play. Baddley also scored a season-high 10 points on 4-of-5 from the field. The team is certainly hoping that Thompson will be good to return soon, meaning Baddley likely won’t be guarding an opponent’s top scorer for significant periods of time, but the senior does figure to play an increased role. Hopefully his performance against Marquette helped give him some confidence moving forward.

Trending down

Derrik Smits: 

Had McDermott’s shooting slump continued against Marquette, it would likely be his name above. Instead, it’s Smits, who’s fallen off the map a bit more offensively in recent games. The graduate transfer center has just one made field goal in Butler’s last three conference games and seven field goals in seven conference contests. 

The team has relied on him against bigger opponents like Seton Hall’s Romeo Gill, to mixed results. Having a player off the bench with his size has certainly been helpful, but Smits has also struggled defensively in certainly moments, particularly when it comes to guarding against the pick and roll. These are not major concerns, to be clear, but there’s definitely room for improvement in a few areas.

A look ahead

After just one game back at home, the Bulldogs hit the road again, traveling to Washington, D.C., to take on Georgetown at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28. The Hoyas are tied for seventh in the Big East standings with a 2-5 conference mark and 12-8 overall record. Butler has split the season series against Georgetown each of the last three years, which includes two victories in a row on the Hoyas’ home court. Georgetown is 52nd at KenPom and 53rd in the NET rankings. 

Butler will then return to Hinkle Fieldhouse to host Providence at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1. The Bulldogs picked up their first win at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center since March 2015 on Jan. 10 with a convincing 70-58 win over the Friars. The Bulldogs out-rebounded Providence 44-26 and held them to just 20% from the field in the first half, setting the tone early in that game. Since that game, the Friars have gone 1-3, dropping three games in a row. They now sit at 4-4 in Big East play and are near 80th in both the KenPom and NET rankings.

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