Butler at the Turn: Just How Good Are the Bulldogs This Season?Posted by rtmsf on December 30th, 2012
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Butler and Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Butler came into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt boosting a resume’ that included wins over Marquette and North Carolina in a run to the championship game of the Maui Invitational, and an upset of then top-ranked Indiana in the landmark game of the season on December 15. On the other hand, it included an early-season thrashing from a pedestrian Xavier team, as well as a blowout loss to Illinois in the Maui final. After playing for the national championship in consecutive seasons, coach Brad Stevens’s 2011-12 squad missed the NCAA Tournament in its Horizon League swan song, and as the Bulldogs head into their inaugural run through the Atlantic 10 conference schedule, the question facing them is whether they can be a dominant team in the league, or whether they are merely a team that raises its level of play for big games but is prone to lapses against lesser opponents. If Saturday’s second-half demolishing of a mediocre Commodores club is any indication, Butler may be the team to beat in the A-10.
The Bulldogs led just 25-22 at the break, but came out in the second half and blitzed Vanderbilt with an early 19-7 run, riding the hot shooting of senior guard Rotnei Clarke to a 68-49 win. After missing his first six attempts of the game, Clarke went on a torrid run in the latter part of the first half and early part of the second that saw him hit five three-pointers on his way to a game-high 22 points. The Bulldogs’ only other double figure scorer was freshman guard Kellen Dunham, who finished with 12. “When Kellen and Rodney get going, we should win. Those should be the nights we win,” Stevens said after the game. Given the performance of his two guards, and the second half run, Stevens had to be pleased that his team took care of an inferior opponent in a hostile road environment.
It is clear that Butler has all the makings of a team poised for big things as the calendar turns to 2013. The Bulldogs have a solid, deep backcourt, and Clarke is a difference-maker Stevens did not have at his disposal last year. After Saturday’s win, the senior transfer from Arkansas is now a remarkable 50-of-106 from three-point range, and it is fair to say that few coaches have what Stevens has. Clarke’s quick release and his ability to make contested threes – and make them in bunches – gives Butler a chance to win even when the rest of the team struggles. “I’m learning about him just like you are,” Stevens said. “He’s zero for six, how’s he going to respond?” Clarke answered that question in a resoundingly positive way, as he finished 6-of-9 from behind the arc. In Stevens’ system, Clarke is given free reign to keep shooting, even if he gets off to a slow start, and the chemistry the fifth-year senior has with his teammates is clear. “There’s a comfort level with this team, just because we’re so unselfish. Guys tell Kellen [Dunham] and myself, ‘Keep shooting, keep shooting.’ They don’t care if we take a couple of bad ones, and that’s a tribute to our team. We’re so close and extremely unselfish,” Clarke said.
Clarke is not the only reason Butler should be able to compete with VCU and Temple for the A-10 crown. The Bulldogs have a savvy, experienced senior center in Andrew Smith, who was a member of both national championship game teams, having started on the 2010-11 squad. Smith, the team’s second-leading scorer (11.5 PPG) and third-leading rebounder (5.0 RPG), gives Butler the size and skill on the interior that it will need to compete against the nation’s heavyweights. As he showed against Indiana’s Cody Zeller in the Bulldogs’ upset of the Hoosiers, he can do just that. In addition to Smith, the balanced Bulldogs have solid forwards Khyle Marshall (10.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Roosevelt Jones (8.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG), and have outrebounded their opponents by an average of 7.9 rebounds per game. Butler has also gotten solid contributions from 6’8″ junior forward Erik Fromm, whose minutes stand to increase as conference play arrives and he gains more experience.
With Clarke and Dunham leading the way, and solid contributions from the hero of the Indiana game, starting guard Alex Barlow, as well as senior Chase Stigall, and although not overly athletic, the Bulldogs’ backcourt should hold its own during A-10 play. Still, Stevens knows his team’s post play was the key to the guards being effective against Vanderbilt, and will be as the season progresses. “Getting it to [Smith] was important,” he said. “It opened up things for the guys shooting.”
Aside from two remaining non-conference matchups it should win (the Bulldogs host Pennsylvania and New Orleans next week), and a Saturday night ESPN tilt on January 19 against Gonzaga, Butler’s focus will be on trying to win its new league. It has been battle-tested with one of the nation’s toughest pre-conference slates, and has proven that it can not only compete with (and beat) the nation’s elite teams, but can take care of business against the teams it should beat. The Bulldogs are a complete team, and have the coaching, talent, and experience to make their maiden voyage in the A-10 a success, and given the way they have taken care of business in the early season, there is no reason to believe it won’t be one.