Thad Matta has reinvigorated the Butler basketball fanbase. His first few months on the job showed he could also remodel the Bulldogs’ identity.
Butler basketball has always been a defense-first program. That notion isn’t new, and there is perhaps no better example than the program’s pinnacle: the 2010 season. The Bulldogs made their first surprise run to the national championship game largely on the back of an elite defense. They ranked seventh nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency that season and allowed just 59.4 points per game.
But even then, shot-blocking was never at the forefront. Hoops analyst Jordan Sperber once called Butler’s 2010 team “the best worst shot-blocking defense” of this century. Head coach Brad Stevens proved it is possible to win without elite swatters, but it isn’t common. Of the top 25 defenses by adjusted efficiency measures last season, 17 ranked in the top 100 for block rate — and 11 were in the top 30.
The message is clear: Want an elite defense? Block some shots.
Butler has lacked those rim-protecting qualities — either due to personnel or scheme — in recent years. In fact, the Dawgs have not ranked in the top 100 for block rate since 1997.
New head coach Thad Matta is looking to flip the script. Already one of the most proven coaches in the country, Matta returned to his alma mater this spring with hopes of rejuvenating the program. His first step after retaining Butler’s young core was to attack the transfer portal in search of rim protection.
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How valuable is shot-blocking?
Even in the 3-point-heavy modern era, the most efficient shot in basketball is right at the rim. Attempts deemed “at the rim” last season yielded 1.179 points per shot across college basketball, a higher number than the 1.009 points per shot expected from a 3-point attempt (derived via Bart Torvik). Conversely, long 2s (aka midrange) are the least efficient shots in basketball, averaging 0.755 points per attempt.
These numbers are why shot-blocking is so essential. Featuring a towering rim protector limits the number of “easy” buckets allowed. Additionally, the presence of a shot-blocker allows perimeter defenders to be aggressive and thus surrender fewer open 3-pointers.
Not every great defense needs shot-blocking — Stevens proved that — but it certainly helps.
Butler ranked just 311th in block rate and 291st in percentage allowed on close 2s last year. From a shot-selection standpoint, the Bulldogs forced opponents into only the 215th-highest share of long 2s attempted — meaning they weren’t effective at forcing shooters into tough spots. They also lacked frontcourt size, ranking fifth-last in effective height among Power 6 schools per KenPom.
Matta looked to change the tides this offseason and had frontcourt openings after Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden departed. Butler has traditionally deployed extremely skilled, pick-and-pop bigs with excellent passing ability. Now, though, Matta’s incoming transfers mean the Bulldogs will feature rim-runners with eraser-like interior defensive abilities.
What do the new bigs bring to Butler?
Matta’s desire to add shot-blocking was clear from the onset of the offseason. When we discussed the team in late September, he divulged that two targets immediately jumped out to his staff.
“It was almost omnipotent when we saw Manny [Bates] and Jalen [Thomas] in the transfer portal,” Matta said. “They were extremely high priorities for us, and we were fortunate to get them. We knew we needed to add size.”
With their impressive resumes, Manny Bates (NC State) and Jalen Thomas (Georgia State) epitomize exactly what Matta wanted to find via the portal. Per Bart Torvik, 449 players transferred between Division I schools this offseason after playing more than 40 percent of their team’s minutes a year ago. Of that group, Thomas’ 7.2 percent block rate ranked 15th. Bates’ 10.7 percent block rate from 2020-21 — he missed ‘21-22 with injury — would have ranked seventh.
In short, Bates and Thomas block shots… and many of them.
Bates missing last season at NC State showcased just how valuable his presence can be for a team. The Wolfpack ranked 79th and 97th in adjusted defensive efficiency during Bates’ two healthy seasons; that number plummeted to 246th without him in 2021-22. He has proven his worth in a top-tier league in the ACC.
Thomas, meanwhile, helped Georgia State rank 40th nationally — and tops in the Sun Belt — in 2-point field goal percentage allowed last season. He ranked in the top 100 for block rate for three consecutive seasons with the Panthers, another considerable track record.
Matta described his incoming frontcourt as such: “Manny is more power, while Jalen is more finesse. This summer, though, Jalen showed that he can give it, not take it. They really add an element of size to us, and their rim protection is so valuable.”
A taller, deeper frontcourt
Bates and Thomas started together over Butler’s summer trip to Greece and Italy, but that was mainly a product of injuries. Ali Ali, the projected starting 4-man, was precautionarily held out. Simas Lukosius, a 6-6 wing, also did not play on the tour.
With that in mind, Bates and Thomas could form an impressive 1-2 punch once the season begins. There is value in staggering their minutes.
“In our system, having those guys down there as an anchor to our defense is paramount to what we want to do,” Matta explained. “We’re continuing to tweak our defense as we learn ball-screen coverages and how we want to defend on the perimeter in terms of switching, but they’re going to be huge.”
Butler’s center rotation over the last two seasons featured Nze and Golden, who stood at 6-7 and 6-9, respectively. Bates (6-11) and Thomas (6-10) are now set to fill those roles, giving the Bulldogs more size up front. Matta also noted the additions of Ali and Connor Turnbull, as well as the impressive progress of DJ Hughes as a small-ball 5 this summer. Myles Wilmoth has similarly blossomed, though mainly for his perimeter shooting.
Butler not only has more size in the frontcourt but also more depth.
Shot-blocking matters to Matta
Matta’s Ohio State defenses were based around having elite rim protection. For reference, nine of Matta’s last 11 teams with the Buckeyes ranked in the top 100 nationally for block rate; five of them finished in the top 20. The 55-year-old spent the last five years off the sidelines, but he didn’t forget his program staples. Barely a month into returning to Butler, Matta landed Bates and Thomas via the transfer portal.
Of course, Butler still will not have the likes of future NBA bigs Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos, and Byron Mullens, at least not right away. However, not all of Matta’s rim-protectors at Ohio State were future NBA players. Dallas Lauderdale and Amir Williams went undrafted but finished in Ohio State’s top four for career blocks.
Sometimes, the most important thing is having the threat of a shot-blocker on the floor. With Bates and Thomas, they have the agility to adjust to how opponents attack them.
“The fact that these guys can move is huge,” Matta explained. “They can really cover ground inside. If it’s a skip-pass drive, they can get from fronting the post over to challenging a shot. That’s a tribute to their athleticism and ability to do it.”
Matta bolstered Butler’s frontcourt both on the court and on the sidelines this offseason. Circling back to Oden, Matta added the former No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick to his support staff. Matta, Oden and frontcourt-focused assistant coach Mike Pegues are set to remodel what it means to defend the paint in Hinkle Fieldhouse:
“In college basketball, size at the rim makes a big difference,” Matta said. “It really does. We have the size and athleticism to get up and challenge shots this year. With the way we want to pressure on the perimeter, there are times when we will get beat; having rim protectors back there makes a big difference. I like our ability to do that right now.”
Rim protection cultivates tempo
Butler’s improved shot-blocking will also help Matta implement another staple: tempo.
KenPom has tracked average offensive possession length since 2010; over Matta’s last eight seasons at Ohio State, his teams never dipped below 180th. The Buckeyes’ average ranking in offensive pace under Matta was 105th, peaking with the 18th-fastest offense in 2015.
Rim protection is a big part of Butler’s potential uptick in pace. “The threat of a shot-blocker allows the guards to push up a bit more,” Matta explained. “I don’t want to say they can take more chances, but they can be more aggressive knowing that if we give up something, those guys will be back to alter the shots.”
Third-year guard Chuck Harris struck a similar tone to Matta when we discussed the value of Bates and Thomas defensively.
“Having these guys as our backline defense to protect us allows us to take more risks and put more pressure on ball-handlers defensively,” he said.
Butler ranked only 256th in defensive turnover rate last season. However, some pieces could post high steal numbers with rim protectors in the rotation. Eric Hunter Jr., for instance, arrives after being named an all-league defender in the Big Ten last season. Junior guard Myles Tate is fully healthy after being limited by injury last year; he posted a 2.8 percent steal rate that ranked 225th nationally as a freshman.
Butler’s guards should theoretically be able to pencil in a few steals per game. If they do make mistakes, a human eraser waits at the rim to at least make life difficult for opponents.
Matta’s best teams throughout the 2010s featured his three staples: tempo, shot-blocking, and aggressive perimeter defense. A lack of opportunistic defense loomed when the Buckeyes struggled over his final two years. Look for Matta — and Butler — to take more chances this year in hopes of securing quick buckets in transition.
A new type of offense emerges
Considering nobody on Butler’s roster has played for Matta before, players will need to adjust to how he wants to play. With that in mind, though, Matta did not mince words when discussing who might benefit from playing faster.
“Honestly, I think all of them,” Matta said. The veteran head coach expressed confidence in how his team progressed over the summer. “We were running on top of each other early,” he said, “but we’re starting to understand the spacing and attacking better now.”
Harris, now entering his third season with the program, noted the team’s desire to improve and learn under his new coach.
“Thad is a straightforward guy, so he will tell you whatever he wants,” he detailed. “Honestly, I’ve just been trying to listen and receive all of his messages, so I can put those into games along with the stuff he says I’m already doing well.”
While a growth period is associated with the tempo increase, Harris is optimistic.
“We definitely feel like we’re a team that can push the pace and play well through that,” he said. “The change from last year will definitely be tapping into other sides of our games that we didn’t last year at a slower pace.”
Hinkle rims: Beware of (Bull)dog
The Bulldogs ranked only 187th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency last year. Generating easier chances in transition would be a huge first step in improvement. But can the Bulldogs effectively play at pace? Increased tempo is almost a foreign concept; Butler has ranked in the top 200 for adjusted tempo only once in the KenPom era (1997-present).
Bates and Thomas will help cultivate Butler’s increased tempo on the defensive end this season. They will be similarly involved if forced to play in the half-court offensively.
“We want to post the ball on the low-block and play inside-out,” Matta said. “These guys will be able to finish down there, and we’d love for them to force some double-teams.”
The two bigs also provide more vertical athleticism than Butler has had in recent memory. Bates, for instance, recorded more dunks (37) during his last healthy season than Butler’s entire team (32) last season. Providing ball-handlers with rim-running options opens up more possibilities on the offensive end, even if some frontcourt shooting is sacrificed.
Chuck Harris is excited about his new pick-and-roll partners.
“Offensively, having a person we can just throw it up to at the rim is a great thing to have,” he said. “That’s definitely our biggest upgrade.”
Matta also hopes to see Bates and Thomas stretch defenses more this year. Bates can hit from the midrange and Thomas can hit the occasional 3-pointer. The latter could determine whether the two bigs can share the court for extended periods.
Bates, Thomas and Ali each shot around 70 percent from the free-throw line during their last healthy seasons. If they can all post repeat — or better — performances, that would be a nice improvement for a Butler team whose frontcourt trio last year (Hodges, Nze, Golden) combined to shoot only 61.4 percent at the charity stripe.
Butler’s outlook under Thad Matta
Butler finished last season ranked 121st on KenPom and with only a 14-19 record. The path to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022-23 will be challenging. Even with improved rim protection to anchor the defense, there are a lot of areas for improvement. For instance, Bates and Thomas will not fix Butler’s perimeter shooting; the Bulldogs ranked just 333rd nationally in 3-point percentage last season.
Yet, there are reasons to be optimistic in Indianapolis. Matta is back walking the sidelines and has already put his stamp on the roster. Bates and Thomas supply the shot-blocking. Hunter provides lockdown perimeter defense and shooting (43.6 percent on 3s last season). Ali gives the Bulldogs a big wing with three-level scoring and positionless defense.
Butler also brings back some talented pieces. Harris returns after leading the team in scoring for back-to-back years; he could take an All-Big East leap as a junior. Lukosius and Jayden Taylor both have breakout potential after showing flashes as freshmen.
The returning talent in the backcourt is enticing. Butler needed to supplement those returners with shooting and, most importantly, shot-blocking. The Bulldogs did precisely that, hauling in a transfer class featuring two of the better rim-protectors available.
Thad Matta has reinvigorated hopes in Hinkle Fieldhouse. But how quickly can he realistically return the program to the NCAA Tournament? A talented young core and a void-filling transfer class hope to swat the struggles of the last two seasons into the past — and turn their new-look block party into a Big Dance.
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