In preparation for Florida’s challenging road contest at Butler I wanted to bring on the most knowledgeable person I could and when it comes to the Bulldogs that’s Lukas Harkins, a site expert at Busting Brackets. While he covers the national college basketball scene he’s particularly plugged in to Butler and he had some great insight into what to expect Saturday. You may remember that he joined me last season to preview Florida’s battle with Butler and I’m happy to have him help me out again this time.
EF: Butler has had a really strong start to the season, not only taking care of business by winning all their games but by doing it with relative ease other than a tight win over Stanford. What has been the key to their early season success?
LH: Leadership and poise have been the biggest differences this season, in my opinion. Over the course of last year, the Dawgs really struggled to a lack of “team play” on the court. Vocal leadership lacked on the court and Coach Jordan was still in just his second season at the helm of the program. This time around, though, Butler exudes experience, poise, and features upperclassmen leaders that are among the best in the country.
Of course, Kamar Baldwin is the most notable of these but both Sean McDermott and Henry Baddley are both seniors this year as well. This also goes without mentioning the impact of three-year starting point guard Aaron Thompson and experienced big man Bryce Nze as well-respected leaders. On the whole, it just feels like this Butler team is far more poised under duress and this on-the-court leadership is a major reason why. The coaching staff has also instilled a strong mentality on this squad.
With regard to an improvement that is easy to see with the eye test, Butler’s frontcourt is significantly better. Neither Nate Fowler nor Joey Brunk (the two centers last season) was an impact player defensively or on the glass. With the “Bryce Bros” of Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden starting this season, the Dawgs have more size, skill, and physicality. Those two are above-average defenders, hustle rebounders, and both exhibit superb passing instincts for their size.
EF: Kamar Baldwin leads the way for the Bulldogs just like he has for the last couple of seasons. What strides has he made between last year and this year to become even better? Also, there are two Big East guards in Myles Powell and Markus Howard that get a ton of national attention, do you think Baldwin deserves to be in the same light?
LH: Kamar Baldwin was already a household name heading into this season but he has truly emerged as a legitimate All-American caliber player through eight games. He is playing within the offense at a much higher rate this season and has diversified his game. For anyone that has watched Baldwin throughout his collegiate career, the most notable difference is the work that he has put into his jump-shot form. The senior guard made it a priority this summer to rework his release and it is paying major dividends. His form is now completely replicable on every shot attempt and he is getting shots off much quicker.
As a result, Baldwin is shooting 41.5% from three to begin this season. He has always been a great free-throw shooter but this development in his ability to threaten from distance opens up his entire game. By connecting on 3-pointers at a much higher rate, defenders have to press up on Baldwin and that allows him to get into the paint even easier, and that’s where he does most of his damage. He is an ambidextrous finisher at the rim and also boasts a signature mid-range fadeaway. In reference to my point earlier about Baldwin playing within the offense, he is also dishing to open teammates when double-teamed more than he ever did last season.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Baldwin is in the same category offensively as Powell and Howard but he isn’t that far behind as an all-around player. In addition to averaging 20+ points per game, Baldwin is a lockdown defender on the perimeter, boasting an impressive wingspan that makes him dangerous in passing lanes and as a shot-blocker. If nothing else, Baldwin has proven early this season that there is a massive gap between himself and whoever you want to pick as the fourth-best player in the Big East.
EF: Everyone knows Baldwin leads the way for Butler but who would you say their second most important player is, or who would you consider to be the team’s X factor?
LH: Butler’s biggest weakness last season was a lack of interior physicality and the team struggled on the glass as a result. With Bryce Nze taking the court after sitting out last season (transfer rules), that gap has been filled in a big way. He is simply a perfect fit for Butler’s roster as a bit of a do-it-all small-ball forward. He boasts great instincts as a hustle rebounder, blocks his fair share of shots, and finishes around the rim at a high rate. Nze is currently Butler’s second-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game while also supplying 7.5 rebounds.
Considering his versatile playing style, Nze is both Butler’s second-most important player as well as the X-Factor. If opponents choose to take away his scoring, he is a tremendous passer from the perimeter or out of the paint. His vision is outstanding and the ability is there as well. Then, if opponents choose to make him score, then he brings some solid post moves to the table (most notably, a baseline spin to a reverse). Nze has been such a crucial addition to Butler’s roster this season and it is impossible to ignore.
With that said, I also want to mention Sean McDermott in this section. Baldwin is the Dawgs’ best player (and it’s not close), but McDermott might actually be the player at the top of many scouting reports. An elite-level 3-point shooter with a lightning-quick release, McDermott is always a danger to fill it up from deep. To this point in the year, opponents have stayed glued to McDermott with every move that he makes and that has opened up the floor for Baldwin to do his damage. McDermott/Baldwin is a dynamic offensive duo because if defenses choose to take one away, the other can dominate. For now, Baldwin is the one reaping the benefits of opponents picking to stay attached to McDermott at all times.
EF: Butler has always been known for their offense but hasn’t really gotten respect on the defensive end. What do you think of their defense this year and how would you describe the team’s defensive style or philosophy?
LH: It’s no secret that Butler struggled defensively throughout last season. The Dawgs’ two centers both struggled with regard to interior defense and the team lacked anyone capable of truly playing the “4” (two wings had to split time playing out of position). With Nze and Golden manning the starting frontcourt spots this season, Butler boasts a significantly better anchor inside and that is exactly what the team needed.
Starting guards Aaron Thompson and Kamar Baldwin are both tenacious defenders but even they took steps back last season without quality help defense. With the personnel changes this offseason, those two are playing with renewed energy while also proving to be superb upperclassmen leaders on that end of the floor. Thompson, most notably, is essentially a coach on the floor defensively, always staying vocal and communicating positioning/sets to his teammates.
Butler mostly runs a man-to-man set but has occasionally dipped into zone this season when it has been necessary. The Dawgs force opponents into long, drawn-out possessions and that has led to several shot-clock violations. They are definitely still prone to opponents scoring at a relatively high percentage in the paint, but that is essentially the only major weakness.
Expect that Butler’s guards will be opportunistic with regard to swiping at the ball on the perimeter or on drives to the basket. They do a great job preventing open looks from 3-point and mid-range. Working the ball into the paint is the best strategy to take exploit the Dawgs’ defense.
EF: Kerry Blackshear Jr. leads the way offensively for the Gators and if Florida is going to win they’ll need him to dominate. How do you feel about Butler’s interior defense and how do you feel they’ll match up with Blackshear?
LH: As I indicated earlier, Butler’s interior defense is vastly improved this season compared to last. Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden are massive personnel improvements for the Dawgs but preventing teams from scoring at the rim is still not a strong suit for the team. According to Haslametrics, the average opponent is finishing on 68.1% of its near-proximity field goal attempts against Butler this season.
With regard to this particular matchup, the “Bryce Bros” will have a difficult time matching up with Kerry Blackshear Jr. It would not be a major shock if Coach Jordan immediately deployed a double-team on post touches because his perimeter defenders do such a good job rotating to cover open shooters and shut down driving lanes. Butler will look to force Florida into jump shots.
EF: Hinkle is an elite home court advantage. Can you talk a little bit about why Butler plays so well at home?
LH: Every player that has ever donned a Butler uniform understands the history behind Hinkle Fieldhouse. As a result, they all take pride in playing in front of the home crowd. That should once again be the case against Florida, especially considering that Butler is now the owner of the longest non-conference home winning streak in the country.
The Dawgs have not lost a non-conference game in Hinkle Fieldhouse since March 21st, 2012 (55 total games), and the team+crowd will be eager to keep that going after only just taking the active lead with Duke falling to Stephen F. Austin last week.
I recently graduated from Butler in May of this year and I can attest to the fact that Hinkle is a legendary environment. “If only this fieldhouse could talk, the stories it would tell.”
EF: Finish the sentence “If Butler wins this game it will be because ____”
LH: …they are the more consistent team. Butler has been as disciplined as any team in the entire country so far this season with regard to limiting turnovers, excelling on the glass, rarely forcing the issue, and playing as a unit. The Dawgs simply do not beat themselves. While Florida definitely seems to have a higher ceiling, Butler has been the better team so far this season. Add in the fact that the Dawgs are vastly more experienced and hold the home-court advantage and it’s easy to see the argument for why they will be favored. If the Gators play up to their potential, though, it will be hard for the Dawgs to match that level.
8) Now that we’re a few games into the season and you’ve gotten to see Butler play multiple quality teams and win, what are your expectations for them this season?
From an unbiased perspective, I had much higher hopes for Butler compared to most in the national media (I cover the entire country, not just the Dawgs). I figured that the team would finish in the 5-7 range in the Big East (rather than picked eighth) by virtue of their experienced backcourt and the addition of Bryce Nze.
Through the first few weeks of the season, though, Butler is exceeding even my expectations. It now feels as though the Dawgs deserve to be discussed as a top-tier team in the conference and a nationally-ranked team. Butler stands with an undefeated 8-0 record right now with four KenPom top-100 wins (all over high-major opponents), three of them away from home.
Over the past several years, Butler’s fanbase has come to expect an NCAA Tournament bid every single season. Heading into this campaign, that seemed like a bit of a longshot to many, but that isn’t the case anymore. Not only are fans thinking that the Dawgs will receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance, but they might be in contention for the Big East titles and a single-digit seed.