After a mostly disappointing 2011-12 season, the Butler men’s basketball program has new life and, for the first time in 33 years, a new conference.
Last month, Butler exited the Horizon League for the Atlantic 10, a year ahead of the originally stated schedule. Along with fellow 2011 Final Four competitor Virginia Commonwealth, the Bulldogs are joining one of the better hoops conferences in the country.
“You’re working with the same people here at Butler, but at the same time, you have a brand new job,” said sixth-year Butler head coach Brad Stevens. “It’s invigorating in a lot of ways, and we’re looking forward to the challenge of tackling this thing together.”
Last season was a challenge of its own, one that Stevens said was often like “going to the dentist.” Normally a good shooting team, Butler ranked 284th in the nation (out of 344) from the field and an even more embarrassing 302nd from the free throw line.
Despite the awful numbers and a 5-7 start, Butler won nine of its final 12 games and reached the College Basketball Insider Tournament semifinals, finishing 22-15.
“They created a good season out of what could’ve gone either way,” Stevens said. “We had to throw some young guys into the fray maybe a little earlier than expected, but I thought they handled it well and I’ve seen nothing but good things since.”
Butler’s shooting percentages should get a major boost from senior transfer Rotnei Clarke, who sat out last season after leaving Arkansas. The 6-footer, who once scored 51 points in a game for the Razorbacks, made 44 percent of his 3-pointers and shot 86 percent from the foul line while tallying 15.2 points per contest as a junior.
“I think his effect on the program has already been dramatic,” Stevens said. “He sets the bar at the highest level in work ethic and working on your own, and people just follow him.
“Of all the things he does, the thing he does best, he might do better than anyone in the country, and that’s shoot the basketball.”
Stevens also expects a strong final campaign from former Covenant Christian standout, 6-foot-11 senior center Andrew Smith, who averaged 10.9 points and 5.2 rebounds last season.
“Andrew is a vocal guy who really has had some great moments,” Stevens said. “I think he will benefit the most from the leadership role that being a senior brings.”
Over the last few months, one player’s effort have stood out: 6-foot-6 junior forward Khyle Marshall, who was second on the team in scoring last season at 9.8 points per game.
“From the end of the season until now, he’s the guy I’ve seen the most from,” Stevens said. “It’s clear how much he’s been in the gym and how committed he is to getting better.”
Among Butler’s newcomers is Indiana All-Star and Pendleton Heights product Kellen Dunham. The 6-foot-4 sharpshooter averaged 29.5 points as a senior and competed in the national 3-point competition in New Orleans as a part of this year’s Final Four activities.
“He’s very good, and he’s a guy that can play right away,” Stevens said.
With its mix of veterans, a one-year senior, and three freshmen, Butler is benefiting from a new NCAA rule that allows coaches to work with players enrolled in summer classes for up to eight hours per week.
“It’s nice because you really have a better pulse on them than what you used to have in the summer,” Stevens said. “So far, I’ve liked what I’ve seen.”
When full workouts begin in the fall, there are no guarantees, and lineup spots will be wide open.
“We’ll start Oct. 14 with a clean slate,” said Stevens, the winningest coach through five seasons in NCAA history. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”