With two weeks of preseason practice behind him, second-year Butler head coach Brad Stevens will unveil the 2008-09 Bulldogs in an exhibition game against local foe Marian on Saturday, Nov. 1. The opening test is slated for 7 p.m. (ET) at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Butler's basketball opponents pretty much knew what to expect from the Bulldogs for the past two seasons. No so in 2008-09!
The Bulldogs compiled the best two-year run in school and Horizon League history! In fact, only five NCAA Division I teams - Memphis, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Wisconsin - recorded more victories than Butler's 59 wins from 2006 to 2008.
Butler capped that two-year run with a school- and league-record 30-4 mark last season. The Bulldogs won the Great Alaska Shootout, captured a second straight Wooden Tradition trophy, posted a second straight Horizon League regular season title and claimed the Horizon League Tournament championship. Butler won a first round NCAA tournament game for the second straight year, before falling to Tennessee in overtime in the second round. That successful run lifted the Bulldogs into the national "Top 25" for a school and league record 19 consecutive weeks, including five weeks in the "Top 10!"
But graduation stripped five seniors who were at the core of Butler's record performance, including Horizon League Player of the Year Mike Green and first team All-League guard A. J. Graves. Those two backcourt stars, along with forwards Pete Campbell, Julian Betko and Drew Streicher, were the face of Butler's program over the past two years and the focus of most opposing coaches.
Absorbing the loss of 69% of the team's scoring and 57% of the squad's rebounding will be a major challenge facing Stevens. But the Butler coach is more focused on the things his five graduated seniors left behind.
"The goal is not to start over, but the goal is to build on the tradition and the culture that's been established here and the attitude that (the seniors) brought to the table every day," stated Stevens. "You hope that attitude is shared by the guys who were on the team with them last year."
"We have to recognize that this is a new team with new players, and they get to write their own script," added the Butler head coach.
The 2008-09 Bulldogs will feature just one returning starter and only three other players who saw action in 30 or more games last season. The team doesn't have a senior and includes six newcomers. Only one player, junior Willie Veasley, has more than 35 collegiate games under his belt!
It's that profile that makes the Bulldogs somewhat "unknown" for the upcoming season, even to the Butler coaches.
"You assess your strengths and tailor the team to those strengths," said Stevens.
"I think we have a fairly good idea going into the season, but some of those things will be discovered over a period of time. We need to play with great passion, and we need to take pride in defending. If we do those two things, we can achieve the results we seek."
While most of Butler's players will be seeking their own niche this season, one returnee is already firmly established. Sophomore Matt Howard broke into the Bulldogs' starting lineup as a freshman last year, and he wound up as the team's second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. He posted the second-highest freshman scoring total in Butler basketball history (417 points), and he became the first Butler freshman to score 400 points and grab 175 rebounds. He led all freshmen in the Horizon League in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, field goal shooting and free throw shooting, and he was named both second team All-Horizon League and Horizon League Newcomer of the Year.
Stevens looks for more of the same from his 6-8 forward.
"I don't anticipate anything less than a great last three seasons from (Matt)," stated the Butler head coach.
"He is extremely coachable, and he cares about winning. Matt is going to do whatever it takes to win the basketball game. He is more than capable when it comes to shooting, and he's going to have a green light to shoot it. But at the same time, Matt recognizes what he does on the interior and what he does on the glass is a unique trait, and he's one of the better guys around at it."
Howard started Butler's final 26 games a year ago. Butler's 13 other players have a combined zero collegiate starts. But Stevens is more concerned with the quality of his players than an overall lack of experience.
"I think we've got really good young people; guys who can play the game of basketball and guys who are versatile," said Stevens.
"I know they believe in themselves and their teammates, and I know they're going to make every effort to make it the best year possible."
Butler's most experienced returning player is Veasley, who was one of the Bulldogs first players off the bench last season. He was fourth on the team in rebounding and sixth in scoring, while seeing action in 30 games. He played in 35 games two years ago, the most ever by a Butler freshman!
Hahn and Vanzant both saw regular playing time in their first year with the Bulldogs. Hahn played in 34 games in a back-up role and averaged just under two points per game, while hitting 17 three-point field goals. Vanzant, who emerged as a strong backcourt defender, saw action in 33 games.
Jukes, a transfer from Alabama, became eligible at mid-season and saw action in 22 of Butler's final 24 games. Leiendecker played in 12 games, while Rodgers and Anglin were limited to just four games each.
The rest of Butler's squad will be first-year players. Stevens added six freshmen to this year's squad, the most at Butler in more than a quarter of a century! The group of newcomers add size, speed and skill to the Butler lineup.
"Without a question, there is a lot of talent among our younger players," noted Stevens.
"How those guys develop and grow as players will be largely determined by their approach. Our goal is to give them the benefit of what we know and coach them to the best of our ability so their approach to the game every day is a good one."
All six of the freshmen played for successful high school teams. Gordon Hayward, a 6-8 forward, was a top performer at Indiana 4A state champ Brownsburg, while 6-0 Ronald Nored played for Alabama 6A state runner-up Homewood. Chase Stigall, a 6-3 guard, helped New Castle Chrysler to an Indiana 3A state championship in 2006-07, while playing in the same backcourt with current Butler teammate Zach Hahn. Shelvin Mack, a 6-3 guard from Bryan Station in Kentucky, helped his team to a #1 state ranking as a senior, while 6-7 Garrett Butcher helped Edgewood to an unbeaten regular season and a #1 ranking in Indiana in 2006-07. Emerson Kampen, a 6-9 forward, played for 18-5 Yorktown (Ind.) last year.
Hayward averaged 18.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists as a senior and hit the game-winning shot in the Indiana 4A state championship game. He was a member of the Indiana All-Star Team, along with Stigall and Butcher. Stigall ranked 19th in Indiana in scoring as a senior with a 21.2 average, and he finished his high school career as the third all-time leading scorer at New Castle Chrysler. Butcher wound up as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at Edgewood. He ranked sixth in the state in scoring as a senior with a 25.2 average.
Mack, who played on the Kentucky All-Star Team, ranked 10th in the state in scoring as a senior with a 23.7 average, and he scored over 1,700 points in his high school career. Nored, a member of the Alabama All-Star Team, averaged 15.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists as a senior, while Kampen averaged 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in his final high school season.
The diverse skills of the newcomers, combined with the returning players, give Stevens multiple lineup options, a situation he embraces.
"One of the things we are is even more versatile than we've been in a long time," noted the Butler coach. "We have guys who can play multiple positions; we just have to figure out who will fit and where. What we've tried to do is recruit a team of good basketball players and not necessarily label them as fitting a particular position. We want them to be the best that they can, figure out where they fit and then ride that out."