Butler forward Bryce Golden looks to pass to an open teammate in a matchup against Western Michigan on Nov. 25, 2020. Butler went on to win 66-62. Photo courtesy of Zach Bolinger.
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After an uninspiring 2020-2021 season marred by COVID-19 quarantines and injuries, the Butler men’s basketball team is bringing back tons of game experience, returning the most minutes played of any Division I team in the country.
Almost every senior from last season ― Aaron Thompson, Bryce Nze, Christian David, Jair Bolden and Bo Hodges ― opted into their extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 granted by the NCAA. Those players, along with senior Bryce Golden and junior John-Michael Mulloy, give head coach LaVall Jordan a plethora of depth, experience and leadership that most collegiate basketball programs do not possess.
“Those guys have been around the block,” Jordan said. “They’ve won, they’ve had some ups and some downs, so they’re invested in Butler basketball, and we’re expecting a lot of those guys in terms of leadership. There’s an expectation for that group of leaders to set the tone each and every day.”
The decision to play one extra year of collegiate basketball after graduation was not a simple one, but both Thompson and Nze gave a similar reason for making their return: a feeling of having unfinished business.
“I just [wanted to] come back and leave this place better than I found it,” Thompson said. “Returning from my freshman year I think we had a good year. Last year we didn’t play as well as we wanted to, so to come back this year, you know we’re just gonna put on a good last dance with all the seniors and light up Hinkle one more time.”
Last season’s woes
After starting nearly every game since his freshman year, Thompson suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery in February. Thompson’s absence as the floor-general and shutdown perimeter defender was felt, and the Bulldogs ended the season with a 10-15 record ― the worst finish for Butler since the 1992-1993 season.
Thompson’s injury was by no means the only reason Butler had an uncharacteristically poor season last year. Early in the season, the Bulldogs were put on a 20-day COVID-19 pause which forced the team to cancel three non-conference games and lose crucial time to practice ahead of the conference slate. This clearly affected Butler’s momentum as they lost five of their six games coming out of the break, including an improbable loss to Southern Illinois at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The Bulldogs also struggled in two major areas that need to be addressed in order to bring the program back to the level it is used to. The team shot a meager 64.6% from the free throw line, ranking 328th out of 347 teams Division I teams. Free throws are a fundamental part of the game that Butler needs to improve on, and Jordan said it has been a point of emphasis in the offseason.
“There’s no magic free throw wand; you got to get a lot of repetitions, got to build confidence,” Jordan said. “We’ll do a lot of situations here, in practices and putting guys in situations where there’s pressure, having to step up and make them in practice.”
The other major problem last season was winning games on the road, something Jordan’s teams have struggled with since becoming head coach. Butler only had one win in 10 road games last season, and Jordan has a 11-32 road record at Butler.
Although most of those losses are balanced out with an excellent record at Hinkle, winning more road games is imperative if Butler is to compete with the upper echelon of the Big East. Jordan believes the team needs to block out distractions ― especially with opposing fans making a return this year.
“Winning on the road is about toughness,” Jordan said. “You’re gonna be in a difficult environment, the fans are back in the building this year. So as much as anything it’s about focus, you know, preparing yourself well and then focusing on the task at hand and not being distracted by any of it. Not other teams or fans or officials, whatever it might be in terms of a block in concentration.”
Despite those struggles last season, there were also positive signs that the Bulldogs could be much improved this upcoming season.
True freshman Chuck Harris led the team in scoring last year with 12.9 points per game, the first freshman to lead the team in scoring since 1979-1980. The unanimous 2021 Big East All-Freshman selection shot 40% from three on five attempts a game, and he was the only Bulldog to shoot above 80% from the free throw line. Harris also proved he shows up in big games, scoring 20 points in a home win over Villanova and a career-high 29 on the road versus Creighton.
This year, Harris will likely be the go-to scorer for Butler, but he isn’t satisfied with just filling up the stat sheet.
“I’m just looking to build on all aspects of my game for real,” Harris said. “Obviously last year [we] didn’t do so well so the main product for me is just really winning and becoming a winning player at Butler.”
The starting five
Harris is virtually guaranteed to start next to Thompson in the backcourt, with the Bryces ― Nze and Golden ― likely to start in the frontcourt. With Bo Hodges out for at least the beginning of the season with a tibial plateau fracture in his left knee, it is unclear who will fill that fifth spot.
Based on last year, the odds on favorite is Jair Bolden, who started 24 of 25 games last season. Nearly 70% of the 6-foot-3-inch guard’s shots were three-pointers, 34% of which he made. He does have the capability to get hot from behind the arc, as he had three games where he made five or more 3-pointers. He is also a good rebounder for his size ― 3.5 a game ― which gives him the ability to play alongside Harris and Thompson.
Another option to start is graduate-transfer Ty Groce. Groce is a 6-foot-8-inch forward who spent four seasons at Eastern Michigan. He started every game his junior and senior years, leading the Eagles in points, rebounds and blocks.
Inserting Groce into the lineup would give Butler a size advantage over most teams, yet still have the ability to stretch the floor with Nze’s addition of the 3-pointer to his arsenal. After shooting just five threes in the 2019-2020 season, Nze exploded last year, making 19 of 43 at a 44% clip. Expect him to expand that aspect of his game even more this season.
“I think I’ll shoot a lot more this year,” Nze said. ”I have more confidence to do it, too. So I think this year will be a little bit different than last year in terms of the way I play: just expanding my game.”
Nze, alongside his fellow Bryce, make a complimentary frontcourt. While Nze records the most blocks and rebounds on the team, Golden’s 6-foot-9-inch frame is a lot to handle for opposing defenses. He is a good scorer around the rim ― his 47.3% on field goals was 13th in the Big East ― and an excellent free throw shooter. The pair clearly have a lot of chemistry with one another too, which will only be strengthened with another year together.
In the Blue-White scrimmage, sophomore big man Myles Wilmoth played the first portion of the scrimmage with the starters, showing promise that he could play a big role on the team. While both Bolden and Groce didn’t participate, this may indicate that Jordan is leaning towards a bigger lineup.
Regardless of who the fifth starter will be, Groce, Wilmoth and Bolden will see important minutes. Sophomore guard Myles Tate ― one of only two players to play in every game last season ― is another impact player, as he led the team in steals last season and notched the second most assists.
Unfortunately, Tate tore his ACL in Butler’s final game last season so will not be available at the start of the season. Jordan said that both Tate and Hodges are progressing as expected and will be seen at some point. If both come back fully healthy, they will add depth to an already deep roster and provide more flexibility for Jordan on both ends of the court.
The freshman class
Last year, redshirt senior Christian David returned from an ACL injury and was limited, but still managed to play 12 minutes a game and provided solid defense on the wing. He led the team in blocks his sophomore season, so now that he is fully healthy, he could return to his previous form and be an important role player on the team.
The remaining questions surrounding the team are what the incoming freshman class can add to the experienced roster. Indianapolis native Jayden Taylor ― listed by 247sports as a top 25 combo guard in his class ― showed off his impressive shotmaking ability in the Blue-White scrimmage and could see minutes based on his 3-point shooting alone. Fellow Indianapolis stars D.J. Hughes and Pierce Thomas were excellent in high school and have abilities that could help out the Bulldogs but may be the odd-men out of a deep, experienced roster.
The most unknown commodity on the roster is undoubtedly Simas Lukosius, a 6-foot-6-inch point guard from Lithuania. Lukosius played in the top-flight German league before moving across the pond to Butler in late August. His highlight tape is impressive, with aspects of his game inspiring thoughts of Slovenian NBA star Luka Doncic.
Lukosius initiated the offense for the second team in the intrasquad scrimmage, and while his shot wasn’t falling, he showed an ability to drive patiently to the hoop and displayed his impressive passing. It is unclear whether Lukosius is more of a project or an instant-impact player, but either way Jordan is excited about his prospect.
“He picks things up very quickly,” Jordan said. “Obviously he got in late in terms of the preseason and offseason stuff, but he’s adjusted and his conditioning is picking up. He’s got size, he’s skilled, and he’s got a high IQ. So you know, we’re excited about what he can become as well.”
A bounce-back campaign?
A roster filled with experience, versatility and a hunger to win, the Bulldogs could be on their way to a bounce-back year. In fact, Butler basketball reporter Lukas Harkins pointed out that Butler has finished outside the top-45 in the KenPom rankings five times since 2006, and the previous four times they rebounded the following year with an NCAA tournament berth.
However, Jordan’s message to the team is not about reaching March Madness. Instead, he’s focused on his players achieving their full potential on the court.
“[We want] to be the best version of ourselves,” Jordan said. “You know, obviously everybody says ‘win,’ but there’s a lot of things required in order to do that. So I think the best version of this team can compete at a high, high level. We’ve got to establish consistency here in the practices and then as we get into the game schedule, playing consistently at the level that we think we’re capable of is huge.”
The Bulldogs season starts this Saturday, Oct. 30, with an exhibition game versus Tiffin at Hinkle, followed by another home exhibition game versus UIndy on Nov. 5. The regular season kicks off in a full-capacity Hinkle Fieldhouse on Nov. 9 against IUPUI.
More than anything, the players and coaches are excited to be back with their fans at their magical, historic home.
“Hinkle is Hinkle, but you know, what makes it special is people being in here and what that can create: those moments and those memories,” Jordan said. “So looking forward to seeing a full house.”