Big East Key Questions: Butler & Creighton

Posted by Brad Cavallaro on October 22nd, 2019

Butler: Can the Bulldogs’ supporting cast take the necessary step forward to return to the NCAA Tournament?

Butler Seeks a Bounceback Year After a Disappointing 2018-19 Season (USA Today Images)

Despite finishing with a sub-.500 overall record and falling to a last place finish (tied) in the Big East standings, Butler was on the periphery of last year’s NCAA Tournament bubble until very late in the season. A mix of strong early wins, the tightly-clustered conference standings, and the star power of Kamar Baldwin kept them relevant, but the stark lack of a suitable supporting cast ultimately doomed Butler’s year.

The pressure will be on the supporting cast once again this season, as Paul Jorgenson, the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer and second-best shooter, has graduated. Jordan Tucker is poised to step into a secondary scoring role with his 6’7″ size and beautiful three-point stroke (37% on 50 makes) — despite averaging an impressive 9.7 PPG last year, the sophomore was too inconsistent, scoring six points or fewer in nearly 30 percent of his games. Tucker will need to diversify his offensive game and improve his finishing at the rim to realize his immense potential.

Aaron Thompson is clearly a significant part of Butler’s program. The 6’2’’ junior has started at point guard for his entire Butler career and is an excellent defender, facilitator and high-IQ player. However, Thompson’s offensive game is so passive that opposing defenses sag off him to almost comical distances — in 27 minutes per game, he attempted fewer than five shots and two free throws per contest. The steady lead guard will have to dial up his aggression by taking (and making) more shots this season.

The most turnover with Butler’s supporting cast is in the frontcourt. Sharp shooting forward Sean McDermott returns, but centers Nate Fowler and Joey Brunk have moved on. The Fowler/Brunk duo accounted for approximately 93 percent of the team’s minutes at center and their departures might actually be beneficial since they were often rendered ineffective on both ends of the floor.

Mid-major transfers Derrik Smits and Bryce Nze will be responsible for improving the frontcourt. The 7’1’’ Smits is a much better offensive player than either of his predecessors and his 6.4 percent foul rate (42nd nationally) is just what this Butler offense needs. Nze’s skill set contrasts with Smits’, as he is undersized at 6’7’’ and is a more physical interior player. Both players will crash the offensive glass and provide plenty of second-chance opportunities. Freshman wing Khalif Battle could be another important figure to monitor as he will be relied upon to add scoring off the bench.

On paper, Butler looks to have treaded water with its offseason roster moves. That will not be good enough in a league where most Big East teams return a majority of their key players and look improved. The Bulldogs’ supporting cast, especially Tucker and Thompson, will be required to take their games to the next level if Butler is to return to the NCAA Tournament this season.

Creighton: Will Creighton’s defense hold back this high-powered offense?

Creighton Will Score, but Can It Defend? (USA Today Images)

After losing Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas from an NCAA Tournament squad, Creighton was pegged by most pundits (myself included) for a rebuilding year. However, the Bluejays instead enjoyed a pair of breakthrough seasons from wing Ty-Shon Alexander and center Martin Krampejl, which significantly sped up their timeline. Securing a #2 seed in the postseason NIT meant that Creighton was probably only two games away from qualifying for the Big Dance, giving a loss to Marquette on Sam Hauser’s buzzer-beater even more sting in hindsight.

That game will soon be forgotten by Creighton if the Bluejays can live up to their potential this season. Alexander has returned and should be one of the top stars of the Big East. If healthy, point guard Marcus Zegarowski is an obvious candidate to make another sophomore leap. Mitch Ballock, with his sharp shooting and stellar vision, makes this offense even more dynamic. There is no question that Creighton will be able to score — especially from beyond the arc — but its porous defense remains a concern.

Greg McDermott’s defense ranked 83rd in KenPom and finished 282nd in 2FG defense. As great as Ballock is offensively, he is a liability on the defensive end — especially at the power forward position. With their loaded backcourt, the junior figures to see extended minutes at the four once again. Hopefully a fully healthy Damien Jefferson can help solve some defensive woes at that slot.

The center position is filled with uncertainty on both sides of the floor, but particularly on the defensive end. Jacob Epperson showed flashes as a freshman, but missed most of last year with an injury. The redshirt sophomore can protect the rim, but his offensive skill set is what made him such a highly regarded recruit. He is the most likely candidate to fill the void at center, but Idaho State graduate transfer Kelvin Jones is also in the mix. Jones, at the very least, should provide mobility and rebounding and hopefully his eight percent block rate (64th nationally) will translate over from the Big Sky.

Sophomore Christian Bishop could be the answer in the frontcourt. The athletic 6’7’’ forward played center towards the end of last year and during Creighton’s trip to Australia because Epperson and Jones were out of the lineup. He is extremely active defensively and could be quite disruptive as a small-ball five.

The Bluejays’ backcourt will need to improve defensively, but their frontcourt defense could determine whether they are a Big East contender or are subject to the dreaded #8-#10 seed range on Selection Sunday. Epperson, Jones and Bishop need to provide interior defense for Creighton to cash in on this talented roster.

Brad Cavallaro (16 Posts)

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