Sophomore guard Simas Lukosius drives to the rim during the team scrimmage on Oct. 8. Photo by Claire Runkel.
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For the first time in a few years there is palpable buzz surrounding the Butler Bulldogs men’s basketball team.
Last season, the Bulldogs finished 14-19 overall with a 6-14 record in Big East play, giving the Dawgs a second-to-last-place ranking in the conference. The team ended the regular season by dropping their final five games but managed to win their first game of the Big East Tournament against Xavier in OT. They lost a heartbreaker to Providence in round two of the tournament which marked an unceremonious end to the season.
That game also marked the end of head coach LaVall Jordan’s tenure at Butler, as the university parted ways with Jordan on April 1. Jordan saw success in his first three seasons with a NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017-18 and a 22-9 record in a shortened 2019-20 season, but in his last two seasons, the team finished with a combined record of 24-34.
Butler did not wait long to name a new head coach. On April 3, the school announced in a press release that it had hired Butler alum Thad Matta — “Godfather of the Butler Way” — to take over the reins of the basketball team. Matta previously coached at Butler during the 2000-01 season and then moved on to Xavier from 2001-04. After he left Xavier, Matta became the Ohio State head coach, went 337-123 over 14 seasons and led the team to the NCAA Tournament seven times.
Matta’s return to Butler sparked questions about his health as it had previously caused him to step away from coaching in 2017. Matta believes that he has figured out the balance between taking care of himself and remaining heavily involved in coaching the team.
“Just being more aware of sleep and eating and just kind of pacing myself a little bit better,” Matta said. “Maybe delegating some of the things that I used to do, giving it to the guys on the staff … but by the same token, I am who I am. I’m not going to change that, so we’ll see how it plays out.”
Some of the assistant coaches that Matta will be delegating to include Mike Pegues, Kevin Kuwik and Maurice Joseph. All of the coaches have experience in college basketball with a combined 44 years between them and have received recognition throughout the sport for being excellent recruiters. Pegues and Joseph are entering their first year at Butler, while Kuwik is back for his second season at Butler previously serving as director of operations for the 2008-09 team.
With a new coaching staff in the fold, the group of players has also changed with five new faces on the court for the Bulldogs. Four of the players transferred from other DI schools and the fifth player is the only true first-year on a veteran-laden roster. Matta wanted to emphasize what the transfers are going to bring to the team.
“We needed to add size, and I think we did that with Manny, Ali and Jalen,” Matta said. “Then getting a guard with some experience … Eric has done that. So we’re looking for those guys to bring not only their physical attributes but also their mental acumen.”
The first of the four to enter the fold is senior guard/forward Ali Ali. At Akron last season, Ali earned All-Mid-American Conference second-team honors and led the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game. Ali has two seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2022-23 season.
The second player to sign with the Dawgs was senior forward/center Jalen Thomas. At Georgia State last season, Thomas averaged 7.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He brings a shot-blocking prowess with him and is fifth in Georgia State history in career blocks. Unfortunately, it was announced on Oct. 10 that Thomas would miss the beginning of the season and be out indefinitely with a pulmonary embolism. He is expected to make a full recovery and eventually play this season.
Next to join the team was graduate center Manny Bates. At NC State, Bates missed the 2021-22 season after having shoulder surgery but brings elite shot blocking as he led the ACC in blocks per game during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Bates was fully cleared for all basketball activities earlier in the summer and looks to return to his previously dominant play.
The final transfer to sign was graduate guard Eric Hunter Jr. At Purdue last season, Hunter Jr. was named to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team while averaging 6.2 points per game and shooting 44 percent from the three point line. While at Purdue, Hunter Jr. played in 128 games and has played in the most games of any player on the roster.
The other new addition is first-year forward/center Connor Turnbull from St. Paul, Mo. Turnbull first committed to the Dawgs under Jordan and re-opened his recruitment after Jordan and Butler parted ways, but decided to re-commit and sign with the Dawgs to play for Coach Matta. Turnbull discussed the difficulties of being the only first-year on the team and how his teammates are helping him adjust to the college game.
“It definitely brings some challenges just working with older guys who are stronger and know the game a little bit better than me,” Turnbull said. “But I think it’s all been positive, [they] help me learn for me, point me in the right direction and make sure I’m staying on task.”
The adjustments Turnbull has made on the fly are similar to what the rest of the team has faced learning a new offensive scheme and attempting to build camaraderie with new faces in the locker room.
A huge key for any team is chemistry and establishing a culture. For the Dawgs, the team’s European tour from Aug. 2 to Aug. 12 in Italy and Greece checked off both boxes. During the tour, the team was able to travel together and play against professional teams and players from the local areas. Butler was able to win all four games of the tour and the exhibition-style games allowed minutes to be spread evenly throughout the roster. Turnbull talked about how the tour will help benefit the team as the season opener approaches.
“I think the European tour was one of the most important things we’ve done so far,” Turnbull said. “I just think building as a team and actually playing against people besides [ourselves] showed us where we’re at and how much more we’ve got to grow and where we need to be.”
A reason for the success of the Dawgs in those early games was the roster continuity and the returning players to the team.
Without a doubt, a cog in the engine of the offense this year will be junior guard Chuck Harris. Last season, Harris led the team in scoring for the second season in a row with 11.4 points per game. This season, Harris looks to get back to being more consistent offensively and he mentioned what it has been like to be tutored by Matta.
“I’d definitely say Coach Matta is a player’s coach,” Harris said. “We’ve had a pretty good relationship. We talk a lot, both in practice and out of practice, just about life and basketball so our relationship is pretty sharp.”
A fellow returner that could help Harris and the rest of the team thrive is sophomore guard/forward Simas Lukosius. The first year for Lukosius started off slow, but by the end of the year, Lukosius had adjusted to the college game and started limiting his turnovers and ended the season averaging 6.8 points per game.
The duo of Harris and Lukosius will be counted on during the season and as they go, the offense will go. Lukosius was able to carry the team in games last season, notably in the game at DePaul on Feb. 15 and in the Big East Tournament with his late-game heroics in the OT win against Xavier in which he scored 20 points in the second half and overtime. Lukosius explained his mindset to winning games for the Dawgs by being clutch.
“It’s not like I was surprised that I did them,” Lukosius said. “But I’m happy that I was able to kind of show what I can do. And I hope I can carry that on to this season.”
Some of the other returners in the backcourt that look to make an impact once again are sophomore guard Jayden Taylor and junior guard Myles Tate. Taylor started in 20 games last season, averaging 8.2 points per game. Tate began the season rehabbing a torn ACL and played in nine games on the year. During the 2020-21 season, he started 18 games and averaged 6.7 points per game and is part of the backcourt depth. Look to also see redshirt freshman guard Pierce Thomas make an impact this season in his first official season. Thomas has unbelievable leaping abilities and is sure to bring fans to their feet this season.
In the frontcourt resides sophomore forward DJ Hughes, junior forward Myles Wilmoth and senior forward/center John-Michael Mulloy. All three saw action in at least 12 games — Wilmoth leading with 22 games. All three could be tested early on especially with Thomas missing games early in the season — at least one could see themselves in the starting lineup depending on matchups.
Coming into the season and with the current roster configuration, the starting lineup looks set at least three positions with two seemingly up for grabs. In the backcourt, Hunter Jr. and Harris are locks at the one and two guard spots. Taylor will also push for a starting role at the two guard. The frontcourt looks to be set with Bates at the five spot and three and four in flux. Lukosius and Ali could fit in either of those spots, and Hughes and Wilmoth could push for the four spot.
Fans should be prepared to see Hunter Jr., Harris, Lukosius, Ali and Bates in the starting lineup when the season tips off. As many coaches refuse to tip their hand, there is plenty of doubt that Matta will not reveal his starters until the Dawgs take the court in their exhibition opener.
Bulldog fans would like to see the team get back to national relevancy and being a Big East contender. All teams expect to win games and this Bulldog team is no different. In Matta’s first season, expectations should be tempered due to the coaching change and new players coming in. The team might take time to gel and find its footing early in the season, but could surprise people as the season progresses. Matta has not revealed much, but has set a benchmark for the first exhibition game against Tiffin on Oct. 29.
“I hope to see a team, first and foremost,” Matta said. “Just a group of guys that are ready to compete together, ready to play together and understand the system of what we want to do offensively, what we want to do defensively and can have an edge about us in terms of how we’re going to play.”
Regardless of the result of that game, the Dawgs will have their work cut out for them this season in an evolving college basketball landscape and improving Big East conference.