At any other university, this basketball program would be thought of as one in disarray.
“The Butler Way”—its seemingly mystical powers and all—will be put to the test more than ever this season.
Think about it for a minute, Butler fans. Arguably the best coach in college basketball jetted for bigger and better things. Your two leading scorers from a year ago are gone and your best returning player is a 6’4" forward who can’t make a shot from outside 10 feet.
And amid all of this, you’re joining the Big East just two years after competing in the underwhelming Horizon League for as long as most fans can remember.
Yet cautious optimism is the consensus attitude among Bulldog players and their fans heading into 2013-14. There is just just something about Butler and its aura that breeds success, regardless of the circumstances.
In a season of such uncertainty, wild-card performers will need to emerge, talks of possible X-factors will be in full force and Andy Smeathers might just see the light of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Let’s not get too crazy now. Here are the five biggest wild cards for the Bulldogs’ 2013-14 season.
As I discussed at length here, Alex Barlow is a defensive force. You can’t say that about too many 5’11" walk-ons.
He’s a tough guy for any coach to take off the floor.
With that said, his lack of production on offense can’t be ignored. You don’t need stats or even advanced metrics to realize that Barlow doesn’t give you much on the “glorious” end of the floor...but I’m also a huge nerd, so stats you shall receive!
Barlow averaged just 2.3 points per game last season while shooting 25 percent from behind the arc. He contributed .03 offensive win shares last season, meaning his performance on the offensive end was worth .03 wins (Rotnei Clarke’s was 3.3, in context) for the 2012-13 Bulldogs.
The bad news is, well, none of those numbers are particularly impressive. The three-point percentage is especially bad for a player of his kind. Not Roosevelt Jones bad, but still bad.
The good news is that Barlow is an extremely hard worker. And most hard-working basketball players are able to develop jump shots over time, even if they’re not blessed with a natural Jesus Shuttlesworth-like stroke.
It’s not like his looks are very highly contested thanks to his backcourt mate, Kellen Dunham. If Barlow could raise his three-point percentage by 10 points or so, he could make the Bulldogs a more versatile and possibly even dangerous offensive unit.
Still, that all remains to be seen. But if Barlow’s jumper can make leaps and bounds from a year ago, he could stabilize what is currently a wild-card position for Butler.
Speaking of Kellen Dunham, his problem is absolutely nothing like Barlow’s. Go figure.
Dunham can become the leading scorer on this team if he can develop some semblance of a penetration game.
As a freshman, he only shot about 37 percent from the field. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. His true shooting percentage, a statistic of shooting efficiency that takes into account that a three-pointer is a far more difficult shot than a layup, for instance, was a respectful 55.4 percent.
Roosevelt Jones, the man allergic to any area on the court that is not painted, had a true shooting percentage of 50.1 percent a year ago.
It really speaks volumes as to how many threes (and difficult looks) Dunham attempted last year. And it’s not as if he was taking poor shots; he just struggled to shake defenders and set himself up for easy buckets.
If Dunham can learn to put the ball on the deck and make opponents respect his drive, it would do wonders for his offensive game. He would create more breathing room for his own jumper and would maybe even force double teams from Big East defenses.
Still, Dunham has been a sharpshooter from the time he first laced up a pair of sneakers. Adding a new dimension to an offensive repertoire is no easy task, but in order for this team to take the next step, Dunham’s development is a huge wild card.
That development may hinge on developing a more complete offensive arsenal.
The Brandon Miller and Brad Stevens comparisons make for an interesting story. Their similarities have been greatly publicized, but people forget two important things.
True, Stevens won 30 games in his first season at the helm for Butler. But people also forget that he had five major contributors on that roster who were seniors, something that can’t be said about this year’s version of the ‘Dawgs.
Khyle Marshall will be the lone contributing senior out of this year’s bunch, with a bevy of juniors and underclassmen expected to play important roles. And while some may view that as a shot at Erik Fromm, he’s a role player on a good team. Likely not a major contributor.
If Fromm plays major minutes this season, it could be a sign that the Bulldogs are in trouble.
The second thing, which isn’t exactly an astute observation but is worth pointing out, is that the Big East is on the Horizon for the Bulldogs in 2013-14.
Ill-placed jokes that 80 percent of the audience likely breezed right over aside, suffice it to say that Butler is a long way away from the Horizon League they competed in two years ago.
The Big East may not be what it once was, but it is still one of the elite conferences in the country. Granted, Butler has thrived against quality opponents in the past (Indiana fans nod their heads), but bringing that level of intensity for virtually every conference opponent will take some getting used to.
Brandon Miller has his work cut out for him. Matching Stevens’ elite level of preparation and knack for coaching offensive and defensive fundamentals will be nearly impossible, but if he can get his players to focus like Stevens did, he can still be successful.
Or he can also fall flat on his face. Likely, he will fall somewhere in between. While I’d tend to expect the latter, every rookie head coach is a wild card in a sense.
In that right, Miller is just like all the rest.
Any team that loses its top two scorers from a year ago is likely to rely on its incoming freshmen for some scoring punch.
This year’s Bulldogs aren’t exactly Calipari’s Wildcats, as freshman forward Nolan Berry and guard Rene Castro headline a solid, but not spectacular, recruiting class.
But truth be told for Butler, if they hope to make any serious noise in the Big East, at least one of them may need to be spectacular.
If Castro could double as Shelvin Mack and Berry could double as Matt Howard (maybe not looks wise, let’s not be ridiculous. But skill wise, perhaps), all will be glorious in Bulldogland. Because not only would they become stars, but they would also be stars for three or four seasons, not just one. It's the Butler Way, after all.
Both of these happening is unlikely. Heck, maybe even one of them is. Comparisons are so easy to make because we make judgments based on what we’re familiar with, not what should necessarily be fairly anticipated.
We’ll save the talent evaluation debates for later. The point remains, Castro and Berry have had a lot of the same things said about them coming into Butler that Mack and Howard did.
With that said, people also compared Andy Smeathers to Gordon Hayward. Some comparisons simply end up looking silly.
Regardless, Castro and Berry are two of the biggest wild cards for the Bulldogs this season.
At times, he looks like Tyrus Thomas back in his days at LSU. Others, he looks looks like Tyrus Thomas during his abysmal stint with the Charlotte Bobcats.
Kameron Woods is an enigma of sorts. And while it’s easy to be frustrated with his sometimes underwhelming spells of play, I would challenge this new Butler coaching staff to see that the flashes of greatness far outweigh the lapses.
As I documented here, the guy was a more effective rebounder than Nerlens Noel last year. He had the lowest usage rate of any Butler regular on the offensive end, but rest assured, he is a competent offensive player. He has one of the prettiest mid-range jumpers on the team and has soft touch around the rim.
One of the downfalls in a rare “down” year from the Butler Bulldogs and Brad Stevens two years ago was that they never stuck with the same rotation. Players were consistently out of rhythm, and it was not unusual to see 11 or 12 players getting significant minutes each game.
For Butler’s sake, Brandon Miller would be best served to live with early season kinks and let his horses finish what they start. As much as no one seems to want to admit it, Kameron Woods is one of those horses. He passes both the eye test and the statistical one.
If ever there were someone who personified the term “wild card,” well, it would undoubtedly be Charlie Kelly from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
And for those of you who aren’t Sunny fans, Woods might just be the next closest thing.