Pierce Thomas and Myles Wilmoth are two of the five Butler players in the transfer portal. Photo by Claire Runkel.
KOBE MOSLEY | MANAGING EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
MATTHEW CRANE | SPORTS CO-EDITOR | email@example.com
Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Fifth-seeded Butler is slated to play fourth-seeded Providence in the second round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. During the 2019-20 season, head coach LaVall Jordan and the Bulldogs put together a historically successful campaign, going 22-9 in the regular season and reaching a school-record No. 5 ranking in the AP national poll.
Led by seniors Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott, Bulldog fans and followers believed the team had the potential to go to the Big Dance and even dance their way to the second weekend of the tournament.
But as everyone knows now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this team would never get the chance to go to the NCAA tournament. They wouldn’t even get the chance to play against Providence.
Fast-forward to Wednesday, March 8, 2023. The Bulldogs are in the Big East tournament once again, this time as a nine-seed and facing eighth-seed St. John’s. A lot has changed. The team enters with a 14-17 record, their third consecutive losing season since the 2019-20 season. Baldwin and McDermott are long gone; the only remaining player from that roster is John-Michael Mulloy. The team has four new transfers on the team: Manny Bates, Eric Hunter Jr., Ali Ali and Jalen Thomas. The biggest change likely goes to the head coach, with previously-retired Thad Matta taking the helm from Jordan.
When the buzzer sounds at the end of this game, Bulldog fans and followers don’t have another game or a potential postseason run to look forward to. The scoreboard reads Butler: 63, St. John’s: 76. The season is over, and it’s time to look forward to next season. Before that happens, though, there needs to be a reflection period.
What happened to Jordan? Why did he and the university “part ways?” Why was Thad brought in? Why did this season go the way it did? And most importantly, where do we go from here?
Let’s start with what happened to Jordan. Following the canceled 2019-20 postseason, it was rough sledding for Butler men’s basketball.
The 2020-21 season began on Nov. 25 with a win against Western Michigan. Following that win, the season was instantly derailed with four straight postponements due to COVID-19. The next game was not played until Dec. 16 in what was a loss at Villanova.
For the rest of the season, two more games ended up being postponed and were eventually made up. Meanwhile, while the schedule was changing, the team continued to follow COVID-19 protocols and the on-court performance was not showcasing high-level basketball due to injuries. Entering the Big East Tournament, the Bulldogs sat at a 9-14 overall record.
In game one of the tournament, they defeated Xavier in overtime but would fall in the quarterfinals to Creighton.
The 2021-22 season started out promising with three straight wins, but three straight losses led to another inconsistent season that was filled with injuries to key players. For the second straight season, Butler defeated Xavier in overtime of the first round of the Big East Tournament but fell in the quarterfinals. Once again the season was immediately over with no further postseason play — as a 14-19 record tends to lead to — and Jordan’s tenure was seemingly on the precipice of ending.
On April 1, 2022, in a release from the university, it was announced that the university and Jordan had parted ways.
Back-to-back seasons with a losing record seemed to be the reasoning behind it, but why did it take so long when the last loss of the season came on March 10?
Jordan had a contract buyout that dropped once that date was hit, and so the move was made even though it appeared to have been in the works for a couple of weeks.
Junior sports media major Michael DeRosa did not approve of how the firing took place and how the situation was supposedly handled by the athletic department.
“Firing him at that April buyout date, I really didn’t like the move,” DeRosa said. “I don’t like the fact that they waited that long. For a school that promotes the ‘Butler Way’ and acting correctly, this was an abhorrently selfish move. It really rubbed me the wrong way.”
Regardless of how and when the move was made, two days later, the school announced that Matta had been hired as the head coach for his second stint at Butler.
Matta had set a precedent of success. In his previous 17 seasons as a head coach, his teams had won 20 or more games in 16 of those 17 seasons. Matta-led teams had advanced to the NCAA tournament 13 times, including two Final Four appearances from his 2007 and 2012 Ohio State teams.
Matta was seen as an excellent recruiter for the players he had coached at his previous stops. The likes of Mike Conley Jr., D’Angelo Russell and Greg Oden come to mind among others. The fan expectation was that Matta would be able to bring in high-level recruits.
That appeared to be the case as Matta was able to coax former Jordan-recruit Connor Turnbull to recommit to the program and standout first-year Simas Lukosius to leave the transfer portal and return to the team.
Matta also brought in high-level transfers such as Hunter Jr., Ali, Thomas and Bates to help supplement the loss of the graduating seniors. That foursome along with the rest of the returning roster gave the appearance of a deep and burgeoning roster that could potentially play competitive basketball in the Big East.
Senior sports media major Chris Lewis mentioned what his expectations were for the season compared to how the season actually played out.
“Coming in, I would say that this season was a transition period,” Lewis said. “I would say that coming from LaVall [Jordan] that there was an expectation of a lot of change and maybe an immediate acceleration of the roster’s performance. But I don’t think that happened.”
The season got off to a brutal start when Jalen Thomas was listed as out indefinitely with a pulmonary embolism and Ali suffered a concussion at practice and underwent nasal surgery. Typically, when teams lose important depth pieces at the start of the season, it does not bode well for the rest of the season.
Instead, even with other players missing games due to various ailments, a team suffering from a serious lack of depth played incredibly well in non-conference play. They defeated a Kansas State team that just advanced all the way to the Elite 8 and were sitting at an 8-3 record heading into conference play.
Even with Thomas and Ali returning, however, Butler began Big East play with three straight 20-plus point losses — two of them coming at home. The team was able to briefly right the ship until a five-game losing streak occurred.
At the conclusion of conference play, the team had suffered nine losses by 20-plus points. A stunning number which was more than the combined number of 20-plus point losses the team had suffered since Butler joined the Big East Conference in 2013.
Key elements of the poor play came down to injuries, which led to a lack of depth, and showcased a team that could not score or defend well enough to overcome their flaws.
To add insult to injury, right before the Big East Tournament opener, it was announced that Bates and Hunter Jr. were not eligible to play in the game due to not “meeting academic expectations of the program”. With two starters out, the game went as expected and the Bulldogs ended a season with a losing record and no further postseason play for the third year in a row.
After this season, it was roster turnover instead of a coaching change that took place. Chuck Harris, Jayden Taylor, Pierce Thomas, Myles Wilmoth and Myles Tate have all since entered the transfer portal, and Bates has declared for the NBA draft with the ability to return back to college.
It is abundantly clear that Matta’s imprint on the roster has become an important part for the outlook of the team going forward. Bates’ possible return notwithstanding, the roster currently will return Lukosius, Jalen Thomas, DJ Hughes, Ali, Turnbull and Mulloy. Incoming first-years Boden Kapke and Finley Bizjack will be the first high schoolers recruited by Matta and his staff.
No matter what the on-court product looks like this upcoming year, many fans will be clamoring to see improvements to the team and a progression back to the middle of the conference standings.
Senior sports media major Jeffrey Nelson explained that the Matta hire should not be characterized by one season.
“I feel like it still could be a good hire,” Nelson said. “He’s been away from the game for a little while. The Big East is the Big East, but the name himself will allow him to bring in the key players that he needs, and he knows the process.”
So far with the offseason barely underway, Butler has reached out to numerous players in the portal and has been listed in one player’s top-10 schools list.
For the Butler men’s basketball program to reach the success that he is accustomed to, it will take an invigorated Matta and company to recruit in a whole new college basketball environment that is inundated with players entering the transfer portal every year and navigate the impact of the murky waters of NIL.