Big East Burning Questions: Butler & Creighton

Posted by Justin Kundrat on October 18th, 2018

The NBA season tipped off earlier this week, which makes it the perfect time to roll out some new Big East content to drown out the monotony of early-season professional basketball. Over the coming weeks, the Big East microsite will be previewing all the teams, players and key storylines to watch as we approach tip-off. Be sure to follow @RTCBigEast and its contributors Justin Kundrat and Brad Cavallaro to get your fix.

In the spotlight today will be (alphabetically) Butler and Creighton.

Butler: Can Kamar Baldwin take on the role of alpha dog?

Can Kamar Baldwin Shoulder Butler’s Offensive Load? (USA Today Images)

A number of publications and season previews have penciled in the 6’1″ junior as the Big East Player of the Year given his expected role on the contending Bulldogs and demonstrated play-making abilities on both sides of the ball. What’s being overlooked in that analysis, though, is the inefficient and inconsistent method in which he played offensively last season. The Butler offense was actually 0.05 PPP better without Baldwin on the floor, and his 104.1 KenPom Offensive Rating was the second worst among the Bulldogs’ rotation players. He fared well as a distributor and two-level scorer, but often struggled with his shooting (33.1% from deep) and witnessed his efficiency succumb to higher volume and more defensive attention. With Kelan Martin’s 21.2 PPG now off the roster, the spotlight will inevitably turn to Baldwin to buoy the offense alongside a flurry of outside shooters – Paul Jorgensen (10.2 PPG), Sean McDermott (43.1% 3FG) and Duke transfer Jordan Tucker. If he can put up enough points while maintaining his notorious defensive tenacity, LaVall Jordan‘s group should have no problem finishing in the top three of this league, but there’s an if.

Creighton: How quickly will its sophomores grow up?

Greg McDermott Has a Lot to Replace This Season (USA Today Images)

Creighton joins Seton Hall, Xavier, Villanova and just about every other Big East team in losing the majority of its scoring output from last season. In addition to Marcus Foster (19.8 PPG) and Toby Hegner (8.4 PPG), what really stings is the early departure of junior Khyri Thomas to the NBA. All told, Greg McDermott lost north of 60 percent of last season’s scoring and is now attempting to replace it with a mix of freshmen, sophomores, redshirts and transfers. Will his team end up in the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year? Doubtful, but it should be fun to watch this eclectic group of players slowly form a cohesive unit over the season. Leading the way are a trio of sophomores — Mitch Ballock (7.3 PPG), Ty-Shon Alexander (5.5 PPG) and Jacob Epperson (6.3 PPG) — each of whom showed well in spurts last season. Ballock is the biggest breakout candidate of the bunch (and my pick for most improved): After spending most of last season under the radar, he posted a team-leading 16 points and eight rebounds in the Bluejays’ NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State. It will take time for each of these players to adjust to a heightened role, but when that happens and versatile forward Martin Krampelj returns from injury, the March version of this team will look nothing like November’s.

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Rushed Reactions: #10 Butler 79, #7 Arkansas 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is reporting from Detroit. 

Key Takeaways.

Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin came up big against Arkansas. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  1. Butler’s two best players were at their best when it counted. All-Big East first teamer Kelan Martin scored 27 points, including several big shots to set the tone for Butler early in the second half. Sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (24 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was even better, making a pair of and-ones, a huge corner three, and a game-sealing layup all within the game’s final eight minutes. Butler’s top two offensive weapons — both of whom averaged more than 15 points per game this season — stepped up when it mattered most. Some players would become tentative after squandering a 19-point first half lead, especially in the face of a relentless full-court press like Arkansas. Not these guys.
  2. The first half was chaos. Butler jumped out to a 21-2 lead to start the game, making mincemeat of Arkansas’ press. The Razorbacks then responded with a 27-6 run of their own. After briefly losing the lead, the Bulldogs counterpunched with an 8-2 run to end the half, taking a five-point lead into the locker room. All the while, bodies were hitting the floor, the ball was being deflected every which way, and neither fan base really knew what to do with themselves. “With our team, it’s a game of runs,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson noted afterwards, perhaps understating just how wild the first half was. The flow of the game settled when Butler took control in the second half, but not before one of the more wild opening stanzas in recent memory.
  3. Butler could be in position to make another unexpected run. Butler is no stranger to shocking the world in March. Brad Stevens took the program to Final Fours as a #5 seed and a #8 seed in 2010 and 2011. In 2003, the Bulldogs reached the Sweet Sixteen as a #12 seed. Now, in LaVall Jordan’s first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach, Butler is in great position to exceed March expectations once again. Not only does Jordan’s team rank #23 overall on KenPom — meaning it was vastly under-seeded based on advanced metrics — but the news of Isaac Haas’s season-ending elbow injury greatly increases the Butler’s chances of upsetting #2 Purdue. The 7’2″ center scored a ridiculous 15 points in 16 minutes in the Boilermakers’ runaway victory over the Bulldogs back in December. Without him, Sunday’s matchup may simply come down to guard play — where Butler has much friendlier matchups.

Star of the Game. Kamar Baldwin, Butler. Baldwin single-handedly put Arkansas away, scoring 11 of his 24 points over a five-minute stretch late in the second half. He also played a huge role in neutralizing Jaylen Barford (15 points) and Daryl Macon (12 points), the Razorbacks’ highly-touted guard duo.

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Kamar Baldwin’s Point Guard Play is Driving Butler’s Resurgence

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 4th, 2018

Just one short week ago with Big East play very near on the horizon, LaVall Jordan‘s Butler squad was sitting on a 10-3 non-conference record that was noticeably lacking in signature wins. Other than a victory over a likely bubble team in Ohio State, the Bulldogs had failed to enhance their resume over any of the other three likely NCAA tournament squads (Maryland, Texas and Purdue). Needless to say, given Butler’s ongoing shooting slump and iffy ball movement, there was cause for concern in Indianapolis around the Bulldogs’ postseason hopes.

And Then This Happened (USA Today Images)

But on the heels of a thrashing comeback win over Georgetown and a words-won’t-do-it-justice shooting performance over then top-ranked Villanova, the Bulldogs have quickly gotten right back on track. The notable turnaround can be attributed to a number of things: senior leader Kelan Martin’s consistency; Paul Jorgensen’s streaky 41.9 percent outside shooting; and, the return of stretch forward Sean McDermott. But most of all, Kamar Baldwin’s over-thinking tendencies at the point guard position have seemed to evaporate, resulting in quicker ball movement and less hesitation in shooting or driving. It’s worth noting that the sophomore guard played the vast majority of last season off the ball, generally delegating point guard duties to one of the team’s two senior guards. But given their departures and freshman Aaron Thompson‘s unfamiliarity with the system, Baldwin has slowly assumed the role this year. While Butler started the season in a time-sharing situation at the position, the below table shows that Baldwin’s minutes without Thompson on the floor have slowly ticked up.

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Big East Preseason Player Awards

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 10th, 2017

The season is finally upon us, with eight Big East teams taking the floor tonight. Here is the Big East microsite’s preseason Honor Roll.

  • Player of the Year: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier. This award could end up with a number of players depending on how the season turns out, but it’s hard to argue that any single Big East player has as much of an impact on his team as Bluiett. The 6’6″ senior was unstoppable last March, averaging 25.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament before the Musketeers finally fell to Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. He’s arguably the conference’s best scorer and the Musketeers averaged eight more points per 100 possessions with the versatile wing on the floor. The Xavier offense will be increasingly reliant on his ability to draw the attention of opposing defenses, particularly without the services of Edmond Sumner this year. Provided Bluiett finishes the season as advertised, it’s difficult to imagine many conference players posting punchier stat lines.

Jay Wright will be happy to have Omari Spellman playing this season (Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Newcomer of the Year: Omari Spellman, Villanova. Before being ruled ineligible, Spellman garnered plenty of attention last offseason as one of Villanova’s highest-rated recruits of the last decade. Now that he has been cleared to play in his second year with the program, the 6’9″ freshman is one of the team’s lone legitimate post presences. Barring foul trouble, Spellman should receive plenty of playing time, making his role as a scorer and low-post defender critical for a team that lacks depth in those areas. There will be plenty of freshmen in the Big East who will make an impact come March, and perhaps several who earn starting roles along the way, but the spotlight will naturally follow the conference’s front-runner, Villanova.

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Quantifying the Impact of Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s Unsung Hero

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 22nd, 2017

As Chris Holtmann’s group of Bulldogs head to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in six years, the underpinnings of “Butler basketball” are increasingly apparent. Statistically, this is the most efficient offensive unit in the last 16 seasons at the school. The offseason addition of sharpshooter Avery Woodson (42.9% 3FG), the remarkably effective play of point guard Tyler Lewis, and the midseason revival of leading scorer Kelan Martin have caused opponents to struggle with a brand of team-oriented basketball that trots out five legitimate scoring threats at any given time. It is therefore no surprise that such an experienced group comfortably executes its offensive sets at its own pace while minimizing turnovers. The tangential storyline, however, resides on the defensive end of the floor — the virtually unquantifiable impact of freshman guard Kamar Baldwin.

Kamar Baldwin’s Defense Has Helped Butler to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

For the uninitiated, Baldwin is a former three-star recruit whose presence in the Bulldogs’ recruiting class was largely overshadowed by that of 6’10” center Joey Brunk, one of the highest regarded incoming big men this season. It was expected that Baldwin would provide backcourt depth alongside the returning starters and incoming transfers Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage, but a more significant impact was felt right out of the gate. Baldwin quickly slid into a role as defensive disruptor, providing relentless on-ball pressure and using his lateral quickness to cut off driving lanes and reroute passes. In fact, the Bulldogs rank 11th nationally in defensive assist rate — opponents assisting on just 43.7 percent of their baskets, compared with the national average of 52.1 percent — in large part because of Baldwin’s efforts.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Butler 74 ,#12 Middle Tennessee 65

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 18th, 2017

Butler started the game off perfect on its first four threes and ended up shooting 8-of-15 for the game, keying its 74-65  victory over Middle Tennessee tonight in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

Butler Pulled Away From MTSU to Advance to the Sweet Sixteen (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. It truly is a” make or miss” game . The major difference in the result of tonight’s game was that Butler simply shot the ball from distance at a much better rate than Middle Tennessee. The Bulldogs shot 53.3 percent from three-point range while Middle Tennessee was only able to muster 21.1 percent. The Blue Raiders ran their offense effectively in getting a number of quality looks, but they simply couldn’t get anything to fall. Most of the other stats on the day were relatively even, but shooting — makes and misses — was the difference-maker.
  2. Butler played like an experienced team. With three graduate transfers in its rotation and a starting lineup that starts all upperclassmen but one — freshman Kamar Baldwin — Butler doesn’t lack for experience. The Bulldogs played like a team that doesn’t easily rattle tonight, taking every punch that Middle Tennessee threw at them and combating it with a key play or basket. The Blue Raiders made several short runs, but Butler and its bevy of veterans always had a counter.
  3. Antwain Johnson was the best player on the floor. Despite the loss, Antwain Johnson put together an outstanding effort tonight. Without getting big games from its three best players except for JaCorey Williams, Johnson kept the Blue Raiders in the game with his ability to get to the basket and attack from the mid-range. It was almost enough to offset a goose egg in the scoring column from Giddy Potts.

Star of the Game. Kelan Martin gets most of his recognition for being Butler’s best offensive player. He contributed a team-high 19 points today, grabbing six rebounds and dishing four assists to boot. He also did a quality job in guarding both Williams and Reggie Upshaw. The junior was mostly quiet in the First Round, so getting more games from him like this one bodes well for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

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