Butler basketball reset: After 2-4 stretch, it’s time for the Bulldogs to regroup

Bryce Nze makes a play against Wofford on Nov. 16. Nze and the Butler men’s basketball team take on Villanova and Marquette this week. Chandler Hart / Collegian file photo.

CHRIS BROWN | SPORTS EDITOR | cbbrown@butler.edu

After suffering its fourth loss in the last six games, the Butler men’s basketball team needs to regroup, and quickly, if it wants to compete atop the Big East standings. Just over three weeks after picking up their third straight win to begin the season and sitting near the top of the conference standings, the Bulldogs are 5-4 in Big East action and tied for fifth in the standings. 

In all of this, it’s important to keep perspective. This is a drastically improved team from a season ago. This is an NCAA Tournament team. This is a top-25 team.

With Aaron Thompson that is. After suffering a left wrist injury at Villanova on Jan. 21, the junior guard has missed Butler’s last three games. Head coach LaVall Jordan said on Feb. 1 that Thompson remains “day-to-day,” making his status for this week and moving forward still unclear.

But as the recent disappointment felt by fans shows, the bar of expectations for this team has risen immensely from the preseason, when the Bulldogs were picked to finish eighth in the Big East. This team and its fans believe Butler can compete for a Big East title, and halfway through the conference slate, there’s still plenty of time and opportunity for that to happen. 

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

A look back

The Bulldogs began last week looking to build on the momentum from their wild overtime win against Marquette, which snapped a three-game skid. First up on the schedule for the week was a road contest against Georgetown on Jan. 28. In a game that was truly a tale of two halves, Butler overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to take down the Hoyas 69-64. Sean McDermott finished with a game-high 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and the Bulldogs cut down on the 12 turnovers and 12 fouls that had doomed them in the first half over the final 20 minutes. 

Then, coming off back-to-back victories, the Bulldogs returned to Hinkle Fieldhouse attempting to sweep the regular-season series against Providence for the first time ever. The Friars had been a thorn in Butler’s side since the Bulldogs joined the Big East, and that narrative continued on Feb. 1. 

Despite good defense, Butler trailed by six at halftime thanks to a 29% shooting performance which included just five made field goals, the worst of any Bulldogs’ half this season. Kamar Baldwin scored 12 of his 14 points in the final 20 minutes, but Butler couldn’t overcome a season-worst 1-of-14 from beyond the arc, falling 65-61 for its fourth loss in its last three games against the Friars.

Standings, polls and rankings

  • Butler in the Big East standings:
    1. Seton Hall (8-1, 16-5)
    2. Villanova (7-2, 17-4)
    3. Creighton (6-3, 17-5)
    4. Marquette (6-4, 16-6)
    5. Butler (5-4, 17-5)
    6. Providence (5-4, 12-10)
  • AP Top 25 Poll: 18th
  • USA Today Sports Coaches Poll: 20th
  • NET rankings: 12th
  • KenPom: 15th (32nd AdjO, 22nd AdjD)
  • Sagarin: 31st

A win against Providence would’ve moved Butler to 6-3 in conference play and in a tie with Creighton for third in the standings. Instead, the Bulldogs fell to 5-4, tied with the Friars for fifth midway through their conference slate. Following the home loss, Butler fell three spots in both the Associated Press and USA Today Sports Coaches polls as well as in the NET rankings from where they were a week ago. Butler is 15th at KenPom, the same place it was one week ago.

Bracketology breakdown

In his Feb. 3 update, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has Butler as a four seed in the NCAA Tournament, down from a three seed this time last week. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi also has the Bulldogs as a four seed in his most recent update, on Jan. 31, while for NBC Sports, Dave Ommen has the Bulldogs as a five seed, their lowest mark among the major bracketologists. 

Other key storylines

With Aaron Thompson out, Kamar Baldwin is being asked to do a lot: Thompson missed his third game in a row due to a left wrist injury suffered against Villanova, and his absence clearly played a major role in the Bulldogs’ loss to Providence. Butler won its first two games without the junior guard thanks in large part to 29 points after halftime from Baldwin against Marquette and 25 points from Sean McDermott at Georgetown. 

Against Providence, five Butler players scored in double figures, but none tallied more than 14 points. The Friars were able to limit Baldwin, asked to handle a heavier load in running the offense, to a fine, but not spectacular, 14 points. And with one less high-level piece on the floor for Butler, Providence focused more attention on McDermott and Jordan Tucker, who couldn’t get open looks from beyond the arc and were forced to drive toward the basket. It’s clear that with Thompson out of the lineup, getting roughly average performances from key offensive contributors is much less likely to lead to a victory.

Butler needs a spark from the bench: This is another point that relates to Thompson. His absence forces Tucker, that spark in plenty of contests this year, into the starting lineup. Quality depth and the ability to mix-and-match lineups has been a strength for Butler most of the season, but with Thompson sidelined and Christian David out for the season, that rotation has been slimmed down. Henry Baddley served as the spark against Marquette, scoring 10 points and more importantly helping limit Markus Howard to an inefficient shooting performance. 

Against Providence, that spark was clearly missing. It doesn’t have to come in the form of double digit points from a player off the bench, but simply a player coming in to throw off the opponent in some way can make a huge difference. Without that, Butler struggled to get traction and throw Providence off its rhythm. Against the Friars, Butler’s bench scored just one point, with Baddley, Derrik Smits and Khalif Battle combining to go 0-of-5 from the field and committing seven fouls. That simply isn’t good enough.

Trending up

Bryce Nze: After scoring double digit points in six of Butler’s first seven games this season, the redshirt junior faded a little bit, averaging roughly seven points the rest of nonconference play. In recent weeks, though, Nze is somewhat quietly making a larger impact. Nze is averaging 10 points and 7.25 rebounds per game across the Bulldogs’ last four contests, and has been a dynamic presence on the interior. 

“I think Nze is a big, big reason why they are so hard to guard, because they can play through him,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said on Feb. 1. Nze registered five and four assists against, Villanova and Georgetown, respectively. The best from him could certainly still be to come.

Trending down

Khalif Battle: Following David’s season-ending injury, Jordan mentioned Battle among the players he was looking at to step up. The freshman guard has struggled since then, averaging just one point per game and going scoreless in Butler’s last two contests. 

Battle committed four fouls in nine minutes versus Marquette, and turned the ball over twice in limited minutes against both the Golden Eagles and the Hoyas. Battle is clearly still working to find his way as a college player, and no doubt has the ability to be that much-needed spark for the Bulldogs. He just hasn’t been of late.

A look ahead

The Bulldogs remain at home for their first game of the week, taking on Villanova on Feb. 5 just over two weeks after falling 76-61 on the Wildcats’ home court. In that game, Butler committed a season-low five turnovers and Villanova shot just under 40% from the field. But the Wildcats scored 21 points from the free-throw line and McDermott was just 1-of-11 from the field. Villanova fell from eighth to 10th in this week’s AP poll following a stunning 15-point home loss to Creighton on Feb. 1. It was the Wildcats’ second Big East loss of the season, and they sit at second in the conference standings.

In its second game of the week, Butler will travel north to take on Marquette for the second time this season. The Bulldogs snapped a three-game skid with a crazy 89-85 win over the Golden Eagles on Jan. 24 in their first game without Thompson this year. As mentioned, Baldwin was the hero in that game with 29 points in the game’s final 25 minutes. Marquette has won two straight, against Xavier and DePaul, since that contest and sits one spot above Butler in the Big East standings with a 6-4 conference mark.

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