Butler basketball is coming off a poor campaign. With anchoring vets and ceiling-raising underclassmen, a resurgent season might be coming.
Butler basketball has been among the most consistent programs in the country for the past several years. The Dawgs are mostly recognized for their consecutive national runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011 but have reached 16 of the last 25 NCAA Tournaments, including a projected 2020 bid. Seven different head coaches have walked the sidelines during this stretch, but the ever-discussed staples known as “The Butler Way” have remained ingrained in the program.
Current head coach LaVall Jordan is now entering his fifth season at the helm, experiencing mixed results along the way. While he has guided the Dawgs to two KenPom Top 25 finishes, they also have two Big Dance misses. Butler particularly struggled this past season with COVID-19 and a myriad of injuries, which limited depth and lineup continuity while thrusting freshmen into the spotlight.
Both their overall record (10-15) and KenPom ranking (No. 120) reflect the team’s poor performance. Roster construction, injuries and a rigorous schedule were also contributing factors. A COVID-19 pause in the early portion of the season wiped out many of their tuneup opportunities. The Dawgs only faced two non-high-major opponents all year.
However, a bounce-back year seems to be on the horizon. Butler returns 96.8 percent of its minutes from last season, including six seniors and three blossoming sophomores. Coach Jordan also added newcomers who could make an impact from Day 1. The Dawgs were picked to finish sixth in the Big East preseason poll, and their fusion of old and young could make for an exciting season.
Proven upperclassmen set the floor
“Get old, stay old” is an overused mantra, but the fact is that experience wins in college basketball. With five seniors using their free year due to COVID-19 to return for this campaign, Butler figures to be plenty mature this year. Additionally, those returning pieces mostly figure to be healthy this season.
Aaron Thompson, Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden are the core returners. All of them are entering their third seasons as full-time starters in Indianapolis. Each of them endured injuries last year, with Thompson’s being the most prominent, missing 11 games.
Dawgs return three multi-year starting seniors
Thompson returns as Butler’s “coach on the floor.” He has been the program’s starting point guard throughout the entire LaVall Jordan era and anchors the team on both ends. Thompson certainly has his weaknesses — he is a complete non-threat as a shooter — but is an excellent playmaker and elite-level defender. “AT” led the Big East in assist rate when healthy last season and was a National Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist in 2019-20.
An offseason shoulder surgery is now in the rear-view mirror and Thompson should excel in his role. His lack of shooting ability forces Butler to be creative with his usage. Perhaps look for the Dawgs to deploy him in more post-up or face-up situations from the wing and corner this year, such as how he was used in an upset win over St. John’s. This allows him to maximize his playmaking, patience and elite finishing ability (67.7 percent at the rim last season).
The “Bryce Bros” make up the Dawgs’ starting frontcourt. Nze, most notably, is perhaps the most underappreciated player on the team. He does the dirty work inside, is a strong defender, and added a perimeter jumper to his repertoire last year. Admittedly on low volume (43 attempts), Nze also shot 44.2 percent from three. Additionally, he is also an elite rebounder on both ends.
Meanwhile, Golden is a physical interior player who is a reliable finisher and solid defender. He won’t block many shots but positions himself well underneath. His spacing is also evident offensively, as many of his buckets come immediately off assists.
Once healthy down the stretch last year, Nze and Golden found their respective rhythms:
Bolden and Bo balance the attack
Bolden started 24 of 25 games for the Dawgs, averaging 10.5 points per contest. He began the season shooting a blistering 42 percent from three, but hit just 25.9 percent of his threes over the final 13 games. There is a reasonable argument to be made that Bolden was simply asked to do too much last season amidst a backcourt that featured two freshmen and a missed Aaron Thompson. Perhaps a shooting resurgence could be in the cards as he returns to a more tertiary role.
Hodges, on the other hand, was ruled ineligible for most of last season before making his debut on Jan. 30. He enjoyed some promising performances in his nine games played, but struggled as a finisher relative to his time at ETSU. He is currently recovering from a knee injury that is likely to keep him out until at least December. Once he returns from injury, Hodges will bring size and versatility to the wing, two attributes that were greatly lacking last year.
These two provide very different skill sets for Butler and will compete to start at the 3 when both are healthy. In order to notch that spot, though, they will have to outperform the newest incoming transfer.
Ty Groce adds a much-needed dimension
Ty Groce is one of Butler’s wildcards this year. The 6-8 graduate transfer from Eastern Michigan adds a completely different dimension that was missing in Hinkle Fieldhouse last season. He is an exceedingly long and big wing with excellent two-way ability. While playing for EMU diminished his recognition, Groce quietly posted 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season on impressive shooting splits.
Offensively, he is an excellent slasher who plays through contact well and finishes at a high rate. He has shown scoring improvement every season, as displayed below:
Perhaps Groce’s most important contributions will come on the defensive end, though. Butler was forced to play a lot of three-guard lineups last season without a “big wing” like Sean McDermott or Jordan Tucker on the roster. With his 6-8 frame and long arms, Groce can help to fill that void. Butler plans to play him on the wing this season, though his size and athleticism will give the coaching staff some lineup versatility with him at the 4 or even the 5.
Groce was remarkably efficient in the MAC as Eastern Michigan’s top scorer. He will be more of a supporting-cast piece at Butler, but it’s a role in which he could thrive. Butler needs “ceiling-raisers” this season to counteract its struggles from a year ago. Groce looks like a superb fit and he is one of the most undervalued transfer additions in the country.
Five underclassmen raise the ceiling
Groce should be a valuable addition to Butler this season. The most important “ceiling-raisers,” though, are the five underclassmen set to all play substantial minutes. These include a trio of sophomores oozing with breakout potential as well as a pair of underrated freshmen who have turned heads in early practices.
Chuck Harris is a burgeoning star
Rising sophomore Chuck Harris is at the core of this group. The 6-2 scoring guard was a unanimous Big East All-Freshman Team selection last year and is now a preseason honorable mention for All-Conference. Harris became the first freshman to lead Butler in scoring since 1979-80 behind a barrage of 3-pointers and strong finishing. He ended the campaign at 12.9 points per game.
His impressive finish to last season, though, is what has people talking about a potential breakout in Year 2. Harris took matters into his own hands in several games down the stretch, proving his ability as a go-to scoring threat.
Harris is set to be Butler’s top offensive weapon from the opening tip of his sophomore season. He was healthy throughout the offseason and noticeably worked on developing his handle and finishing ability. The Dawgs need to be much-improved offensively this year and featuring a true alpha would be a step in that direction.
Myles2 is set to grow in Year 2
Myles Wilmoth and Myles Tate represent the rest of Butler’s rising sophomore class. Both were thrust into bigger roles than anticipated last season and performed admirably. There were bumps in the road, of course, but each showed flashes of what they could be in the future. Neither is expected to star in Year 2, either, but the experiences that they gained as freshmen should push them to be at least reserve pieces this time around.
Tate is the more important of this duo for this season. He is currently recovering from an ACL tear, but most anticipate a return prior to conference play, if not earlier. He will be the primary backup to Thompson at the 1. Tate contributed well as a defender and playmaker as a freshman but simply could not find the bottom of the net from three. If historical data is any indication, his poor shooting as a freshman might have just been a (large) blip on the radar:
Wilmoth figures to add depth in the frontcourt with his 3-through-5 playing ability. He is a lengthy 6-9 forward who has clearly improved his physique. He showed some rebounding flashes as a freshman but now is much stronger and better prepared to handle the Big East. Wilmoth might still be one year away but his sophomore-year potential is enough to be one of the first Dawgs off the bench.
Watch out for an underrated freshmen duo
It would take a special type of freshman to crack a rotation built by so many returning minutes. Yet, the Dawgs appear to have two first-year players set to make critical impacts this season: Jayden Taylor and Simas Lukosius.
Taylor is at home with Butler, having gone to high school in Indianapolis. He committed to the program very early and is a deadly scorer. Taylor averaged 25.5 points per game as a senior and has received rave reviews from practices, scrimmages and exhibitions. Butler needs more dynamic scorers and excellent 3-point shooters. Taylor can be both.
Lukosius is a vastly different newcomer, having needed a visa in order to join the team. The Lithuanian native played in Germany’s top league last year and comes to Butler with loads of international experience. The 6-6 guard/forward is highly versatile; he is an excellent playmaker with great vision, can shoot it a bit from deep, and uses his size defensively. Lukosius has been praised for his high IQ.
All preseason statistics, highlights and standouts need to be taken with a grain of salt, but these two both impressed in Butler’s first exhibition win:
Pierce Thomas and DJ Hughes are the other two members of the freshman class. Both are local products who add athleticism to their respective positions and should be integral parts of the future. With the level of depth on Butler’s roster this year, though, cracking the rotation could be difficult.
2021-22 outlook for the Dawgs
Butler is among the more intriguing teams in the country heading into 2021-22. Optimism reigns supreme and the program has been ever-so-consistent over the years. “Team 124” features a fascinating blend of young and old that could return the Dawgs to the upper half of the Big East.
Thompson, Nze and Golden are the vets of the group and know how to win in Hinkle Fieldhouse. All three were starters on Butler’s 2019-20 team that finished 22-9 and at No. 25 on KenPom. Kamar Baldwin is no longer their star to rally around, but perhaps Harris can be that guy this season. Their supporting cast also features a combination of familiar faces. Most notably, newcomers Groce, Taylor and Lukosius could be the undervalued additions who change the outlook.
Additionally, Butler has been in this position before.
Recovering from down seasons is essentially in the program’s DNA. LaVall Jordan has his doubters, but he has led one of these bounce-backs already. He is also the owner of two of Butler’s seven Top 25 KenPom finishes in the history of the site. He has proven himself capable of leading excellent seasons while walking the sidelines in Hinkle Fieldhouse, particularly with an efficient offense.
That offense failed to operate last season, finishing 164th in adjusted efficiency after averaging a top-35 finish in Jordan’s first three years at the hem. With a healthy, experienced core and a sophomore star in Harris to guide the way, the Dawgs are poised to bite back.