After months upon months of speculation and uncertainty, the 2020-21 college basketball is now on the doorstep and it appears to be a “go”. While schedules are only being released in sections and the possibility of bubbling still remains, the season is now under a month away and practices have begun across the country.
Additionally, the Big East held its annual media day for men’s basketball on October 28th. Representatives from each school in the conference were in attendance to answer questions. Head coach LaVall Jordan, as well as student-athletes Aaron Thompson and Bryce Nze, graced the Zoom stage for Butler.
This edition of the Hark’s Bark will dive into some of the things we heard at media day before answering this month’s questions from the forum. It will be a bit different (and quite a bit longer) than normal editions but I want to supply as much as I can from media day given the limited coverage throughout the uncertain offseason.
DEFENSE WILL NEED TO LEAD THE WAY.
For starters, Coach Jordan once again reiterated the non-negotiable nature of needing to defend at a high level this season. This isn’t particularly surprising given the roster makeup without Baldwin and McDermott but his ongoing commitment to preaching this point gives a strong idea of what will be expected of everyone desiring playing time.
Quite simply: Play defense, or don’t play.
The Dawgs will need to pride themselves on the defensive end of the floor this season to make a push for an NCAA Tournament bid. That much has been stated by just about everyone that follows the team consistently. Coach Jordan also alluded to that exact identity on media day:
“We have to be stingy and tough defensively. Gritty not pretty and that’s Butler basketball. Find ourselves on the defensive end and make that our priority. Offensively, I think that will be an evolution as we continue to learn more about our strengths and what positions are good for us on that end. We are a defensive program and we are going to compete and be a team.”
This defense-first mentality is something that is not just present within the coaching staff as the entire roster seems attuned to it as well. Most notably, the team’s primary leader is well aware of what it takes to be successful with the Dawgs. Even though Butler’s offenses have largely been more efficient than its defenses under Coach Jordan, the program’s calling card remains on the “stopping” end.
When asked about how the Dawgs defend at such a high level, National Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist Aaron Thompson said that:
“We rep it out every day - even the small stuff that you wouldn’t think about doing we rep every single day. Our attention to detail is second-to-none, I would say. We lock in on details in this program and that’s one of the biggest separators for us. We lock in on every single detail and no slip-ups are okay. We hold everybody accountable to do their job and that’s one of the biggest things for us - doing our jobs for our teammates.”
Thompson will be Butler’s leader on both ends of the floor this season. That much is widely known and his comments regarding the team’s commitment to the defensive end will ring throughout the entire roster. The idea that the players are holding each other accountable on that end of the floor is crucial. COVID-19 is making it difficult for teams to develop chemistry, particularly those with many newcomers, but it sounds like Thompson and Co. are leaning into their leadership roles and setting the example for those around them.
THE OFFENSE WILL COME ALONG WITH TIME.
When it comes to projecting Butler’s possibilities for this coming season, the majority of the question marks are on the offensive end. To put it simply, there aren’t any clear-cut bucket-getters arriving or returning to make up for the departures of Baldwin, McDermott, and - to a lesser degree - Jordan Tucker. This, coupled with a shortened offseason due to the pandemic, has left Butler without much time to figure out an offensive game plan for the season.
Coach Jordan indicated as much when asked about needing to replace those top offensive weapons.
“We are still learning our team and there are things we are evaluating right now in practice. We haven’t seen our team with Aaron [Thompson] out there yet in the practice season. That’s something we have to see. Bryce Nze obviously impacted us a lot on the offensive end last year and Bryce Golden is developing. Those guys have really developed in being able to shoot the ball more confidently from the perimeter and that will weigh into it. And then you’ve got a guy like Jair who has scored the ball before, along with the newcomers. A lot to learn still, though, I would say.”
On the bright side, though, it sounds as though Butler’s roster was full of players that felt challenged by the opportunities potentially available to them this season:
“You prioritize winning and there was a charge to the guys to develop over the summer to the best that they could since they weren’t with us, knowing that there was a loss offensively with Sean and Kamar and Tuck and they’ve done that. While there might not be a clear plan for who will be the closers yet, Coach Jordan suggested that “It will reveal itself. Guys want to win and you do what it takes to win. You have seniors that will step up and they’re passionate about it and realize the opportunities that are there. Guys have put in the work and prepared themselves.”
One of the biggest areas for potential improvement from returning players is in regard to perimeter shooting. Thompson, David, Golden, and Nze are all regarded as *at best* sub-par shooters from beyond the arc with most registering as non-threats entirely. That is something that will need to be remedied in some capacity with the latter three being the most likely to make that jump.
With David, he is almost exclusively a shooter offensively but is only 23.1% from deep for his career. An improvement from three would significantly raise his impact offensively and will keep him on the floor for more than just his defense. Golden is perhaps the best shooter of this bunch but shot only 24.4% last season from deep. He is only entering his second major year in the rotation, though, and is likely to experience an across-the-board jump.
After writing about Nze’s shooting potential in my player breakdown of him a few weeks ago, I asked at media day if he is looking to stretch the floor more as a senior:
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I know that to be successful, or to have a long playing career, I have to stretch the floor a little better. I’ve been in the gym a lot trying to work on that and hopefully I show that improvement this year.”
That should be music to Butler fans ears. Is Nze going to be a knockdown shooter? No, but just the idea of him hitting a three every other game or so will help to diversify the offense. If Nze and Golden can both prove capable of hitting perimeter shots on occasion, that would open up more driving lanes. Most notably, both Thompson and Bo Hodges are at their best when able to attack the basket. For Thompson, he uses his drives to either draw fouls or create for teammates on dump-offs or kick-outs. Hodges, on the other hand, is one of the nation’s best finishing wings.
Regardless, the ongoing theme of Jordan’s comments when discussing the offseason was the pacing of their practice schedule. With Thompson out due to wrist surgery and so many new pieces to be integrated, he continuously stressed not getting ahead of themselves. Focusing on getting better every day has been a staple under this coaching staff and Bryce Nze reminded everyone of a well-documented mantra of the program as well:
“Practice like we’re in last, play like we’re in first.”
NEWCOMERS SET TO CONTRIBUTE.
One of the biggest keys to this season will be how the newcomers adjust to playing in the Big East alongside Butler’s proven vets. We already know what the baseline is for Thompson, Nze, Golden, and David as (at least) rock-solid role players capable of making strong impacts on the defensive end of the floor. The big question will be how the new Dawgs will fill the holes around those four. With regard to the backcourt and wings, I asked Coach Jordan about how his three new guards are adjusting to Butler. He wasn’t short in his answer:
“Myles Tate is a winner. He’s a smart player and is picking things up really quickly in terms of being able to apply certain things. Defensively is where they are all getting accustomed to what our standards are on that end of the court. Chuck Harris has enough physicality to him as a young player to be productive. I think he’s good in pick-and-rolls and he’s coming from a winning program. Jair [Bolden] has played meaningful minutes, he can really shoot the basketball, but he’s also a really good decision-maker with the ball in his hands. His ability to be a secondary ball-handler is key as well.
Defensively is where those guys are really locking in because they understand who we are and what that priority is. On the whole, I really love their natural instincts and ability - all of them individually. They are great kids, fun to coach, have great energy, and a really good presence about them in that group.”
And while Coach was not specifically asked about JaKobe Coles, returning starter Bryce Nze chimed in later in the day to give his thoughts on the versatile freshman big man:
“JaKobe is very versatile. He can score the ball with ease, I feel that’s super natural with him. He’s got a lot of talent and I’m ready to see what he can do on the court.”
On the whole, Coach Jordan stressed that the freshmen have a lot to learn but have a great energy about them.
Thompson was also quite complimentary of his new backcourt running mates. I asked Butler’s floor general about how those guards are adjusting and contributing to the defensive end of the floor:
“With our returning core, I think we do a good job of teaching but I also think the new guys and transfers all have good instincts. It helps to have some guys that are experienced playing at a high level with Bo and Jair, but the freshmen also have good basketball instincts so it’s not like we are throwing them out into the jungle without any awareness.”
He also noted that the new arrivals aren’t experiencing the kind of pressure one might project given the Butler’s sizable offseason losses:
“We don’t have anyone selfish on our team, so it’s not like we have anyone coming in thinking ‘oh, I have to be Kamar’ or ‘I have to try to be Sean’. Everyone wants to come in and play their part and do their role. That might be the biggest part for us - everyone knowing their role and knowing how they can help the team offensively.”
Butler will need its freshmen, and transfers, to immediately be able to provide solid minutes either in starting or reserve roles. The fact that AT is confident in the newcomers’ instincts, awareness, and humility is hopefully a sign of them being able to contribute from Day 1.
Who will be the vocal team leader this coming season?
There are very few things that are easily predictable about this upcoming season for any team in the nation. Pegging Aaron Thompson as Butler’s vocal leader, though, is one of those things. The senior point guard has been a full-time starter since the minute he stepped on campus and brings a ton of leadership qualities to the court. To put it simply, Thompson was an extension of the coaching staff last season and he will continue to be a two-way floor general this time around.
Coach Jordan and Co. trusted him to run huddles on occasion last season. I think that summarizes the level of trust that not only the coaching staff has in him, but also the respect that he commands from his teammates. Thompson has grown as a leader throughout his career and is impactful on both ends of the floor. Not only is he a highly-capable and experienced floor general offensively but he sets the tone defensively as well.
Thompson is bound to play tons of minutes this season and will be directing the Dawgs on both ends. His basketball IQ is tremendous and he helps push everyone to success. He does a great job manipulating defenses into mismatches on one end while calling out switches or adjustments on the other. Thompson will not be Butler’s leading scorer this season, but he will be the one that the rest of the team looks to as its leader.
Thompson discussed learning leadership tips from Baldwin as well, but his words on what it will take for Butler to be successful this season were most telling to me:
“For us to be successful it starts on the defensive end. Coach emphasizes defense and that is a key part of our program - emphasizing our principles on defense and just sticking to what we know and not getting outside of ourselves. Offensively, it’s sharing the ball and having fun - letting the ball find the energy on the court. Our successes in the past have come from us being one of the more connected teams in the country. If we stick with that, that will help us succeed.”
Thompson is truly an extension of the coaches and can be the glue that holds everything together. He is extremely loud on the court and is equally vocal in huddles and during practices. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will be the guy everyone turns to.
Additionally, both Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden have been heralded by Coach Jordan for their leadership qualities throughout the offseason as well. The upperclassmen frontcourt duo was rock-solid last season and they are setting a great example in terms of work ethic and improving their all-around games.
Which player will be the most surprising with his offseason development?
I have not had the opportunity to attend any practices yet this season so my answer to this question will be purely speculative. With that said, I think that John-Michael Mulloy is probably the one that will be “most surprising” to the fanbase. He might not take the biggest leap of the returning group - I’ll save that distinction for Bryce Golden - but he is oftentimes the forgotten man in preseason conversations. Of course, JMM did not flash much during his limited minutes as a freshman, but that doesn’t mean the fanbase should give up on him.
There are opportunities for minutes in the frontcourt behind Nze and Golden this season and Mulloy is a candidate to fill some of that role. He already has a full season with the program and it’s impossible to know what that year has done for both his understanding of the scheme as well as his confidence. While still not the most well-built big man, JMM could show that he belongs as a 10 minutes per game player. Given how much the fanbase seems to write him off, I think that would classify as “surprising” to most of the Butler faithful.
Quite frankly, there aren’t many options to answer this question with. Many are already projecting a jump from Golden, it’s hard to see David taking a leap after an ACL tear, Hastings hasn’t shown enough to know what his year-over-year jump would be, and the rest of the rotation features newcomers. That really just leaves Mulloy as someone that has been overlooked due to his relatively low recruiting ranking coupled with minimal playing time last season. I’ll talk about JMM a bit more in another question, but I’m a bigger believer than most.
Who is the strongest player physically on the team/will it be enough to hold his own in the BE?
We already know that the likes of Thompson, Jair Bolden, David, Bo Hodges, Golden, and Nze can hold their own in a high-major conference. Hodges is the only one of that group that hasn’t experienced a full-season at a high-major but there’s no doubt about the fact that he is an incredibly well-built and strong wing. As a result, I’m going to rule that group out when answering this question because we already know that they can handle it.
I think the better way to answer this is by choosing which of the freshmen are best-prepared for the rigors of the Big East. That leads me to discussing Chuck Harris and Jakobe Coles. For those that read my film study on Myles Tate, it’s obvious that I think he is a vital piece of the puzzle for this season but he isn’t quite as *physically* prepared compared to Harris and Coles, in my opinion.
Starting with Harris, his physicality was the first thing that Coach Jordan mentioned about him on media day. I am currently in the midst of watching some of Harris’ film and his frame/strength definitely stands out. While I wouldn’t call him a bully-ball guard, Harris gets downhill well and is uniquely gifted defensively. He comes in at 6-2 and 190 pounds (just five pounds lighter than Thompson at the same height). He is well-built and prepared to play solid minutes on both ends of the floor.
Coles has changed his body significantly over the past few years and might be the most college-ready of Butler’s freshmen. He stands at 6-7 and 225 pounds, is capable of playing at either frontcourt slot, and brings a versatile game to the court. Coles is a great passer that runs well, can stretch the floor to 3-point range, and is adept in the post as well. I’ll talk more about Coles in a bit but he should see minutes during his freshman season.
Is the staff optimistic about Hodges playing this year?
When I asked about the waiver situation for Hodges at media day, Coach Jordan stated that:
“It’s in the process. We will do our part to hopefully make that an option for us and see where we go from there. That’s something that will be out of our hands once we make that petition and fill out the things that we need to fill out. The NCAA will have to make the final decision on that. I know that Bo is great to be around. Guys love him in the locker room and he’s obviously won a lot. Regardless, he’s passionate about getting better and he helps our practices. We’ll see if he will be able to help us in games based on what they decide.”
With the extra year granted to winter athletes, it makes 100% sense to try for the waiver but I have no idea how confident the staff is in receiving one. If asked my opinion, though, I think that there is a pretty good chance that he suits up for the Dawgs this year. While a few waivers have been denied so far this offseason, the vast majority have been granted. I’m unsure how the case will be made given Hodges originally planned on sitting out this year but his former coach did leave for another school this offseason.
Not only is it impossible to know what Hodges’ odds are of receiving his waiver, but the timeline is also completely unknown. We are only a few weeks away from the start of the season, though, so a decision could come anytime. As Coach Jordan said, “It’s in the process.”
Do you see John-Michael Mulloy developing beyond what the rest of us have seen so far, and what do you think his role on the team will be this season?
I definitely think that Mulloy will develop beyond what we have seen so far. Honestly, I think he is being undervalued as a potential piece. I do not think that he is going to be a star, and there’s a decent chance he never starts either, but I bet that he will be a solid rotation piece for at least one season while at Butler. That season might even come as soon as in three weeks.
It is simply far, far too early to write off someone based on 76 total minutes played in a season when most people agreed that he was better off redshirting if possible. He was thrust into action due to Derrik Smits’ injuries and I don’t think we can judge him on that.
He needs to add some muscle but is intriguing with a relatively versatile skillset. He is a good ball-handler and passer for his position and held his own on the defensive end well during his high school and AAU careers. And while people will cite his poor recruiting ranking as a reason to be pessimistic, I find that to be a bit odd considering how many Butler players have outperformed those rankings in the past. Mulloy was always going to be a project rather than an immediate impact guy. He needs time, so let’s give him that time.
As far as this season goes, Mulloy will be the mix to contribute off the bench behind Nze and Golden. There will be competition for that spot, mainly from Jakobe Coles, but I expect that they will both see playing time. This could be Mulloy’s opportunity to raise the fanbase’s hopes for his future. I’ll summarize by saying that I don’t think anyone should have changed their opinion of Mulloy from this time last year to now.
Who do you see providing the majority of backup minutes at the 4 and 5 positions since the starting roles are locked down by the Bryces?
As stated in the question, Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden are locks to start in the frontcourt for the second consecutive season. The two paired exceptionally well together last season with efficient offensive play and superb defensive positioning. They will be anchors for the Dawgs during this coming season, but I am also optimistic that the depth behind them will be relatively solid. The reserve frontcourt pieces this time around will also probably be better defensively than they were in 2019-20 - neither Tucker nor McDermott was a fit at the “4” on defense.
Looking ahead to this season, Butler will need to fill approximately 20 minutes at the “4” and 5-10 minutes at the “5” with reserves.
The best option for the majority of the minutes behind Nze is Christian David. The ultimate glue guy when healthy, David was an analytics darling last season before going down with an ACL tear. According to Coach Jordan, David “will not be ready for the opener but is on track in terms of his rehab and recovery. He’s doing great, just a little bit more each day. I wouldn’t say he’s ahead of schedule but definitely on schedule.”
Bryce Nze stated that he expects him to be “the same old CD” when he is finally cleared for action. David will never receive star attention but it’s impossible to ignore how much his injury impacted the Dawgs last season. He is one of those guys whose impact doesn’t show up in the box score. It is also worth mentioning that Bo Hodges played a lot of small-ball 4 while at ETSU and could reprise that role for spot minutes if he is eligible. With David and Hodges, I think Butler will be pretty well-off at the 4.
That also goes without mentioning incoming freshman JaKobe Coles, who can be useful at either the “4” or the “5”. I have heard excellent things about Coles so far this year and his ability to stretch the floor could make him an invaluable part of the rotation. The frontcourt is a bit crowded considering how many minutes Nze soaks up (which is a good thing) but I think it could be hard to keep Coles off the court.
Additionally, rising sophomore John-Michael Mulloy is the other option. Mulloy, as already discussed, has a year of collegiate experience under his belt and could be tasked with primary back-up duties behind Golden. This reserve role was filled with uncertainty last season as Mulloy wasn’t ready and Smits couldn’t stay healthy. Now with Mulloy in his second year and Coles entering the mix, Golden and Nze won’t have so much pressure to play huge minutes at the “5”.
I think all four of David, Hodges, Coles, and Mulloy will see playing time this season. The former two will also play minutes at the “3”, especially Hodges, while Coles is versatile to play either major frontcourt slot. Coach Jordan repeatedly mentioned during media that he is still figuring out his team with the shortened offseason so I’m expecting a deep rotation to begin the year before cutting it down over time.
OTHER BUTLER BASKETBALL NOTES
- Aaron Thompson was expecting to get his brace off on media day (Oct. 28th). He should be fully practicing now with the rest of the team.
- Assistant coach Jeff Meyer announced his retirement this past week. Will Vergollo, who served as the program's basketball analyst for the last three seasons, will be filling his spot in an interim capacity for this coming season. Vergollo has prior experience as an assistant as he held that role under Coach Jordan while at Milwaukee. He also functioned as Michigan’s video analyst for three seasons prior to that.
- The Dawgs will be opening the season on November 25th when Western Michigan comes to Hinkle Fieldhouse. Two other non-conference games are also already scheduled against Eastern Illinois (Home - Nov. 29th), Kansas State (Home - Dec. 11th), and Indiana (Neutral - Dec. 19th). Only one more non-conference slot remains open in Butler’s 25-game schedule and that should be filled over the Dec. 5-6th weekend.
- As released on media day, Butler also already has dates set for its first three Big East games. These contests will come against St. John’s (Home - Dec. 14th), Villanova (Away - Dec. 16th), and Providence (Home - Dec. 23rd). The Big East will be playing a 20-game conference schedule this year now that UConn has rejoined the mix.
- KenPom released his/its preseason rankings recently with Butler slotting in at No. 56 in the nation and sixth in the Big East. This projection is a bit higher on the Dawgs than most prognosticators but it is within the correct range, in my opinion.
Sorry about getting this out later than expected, but it has been a busy couple of weeks. With the season drawing ever closer, I am excited about putting out a bunch of season preview content for the Dawgs and I can’t wait to hopefully return to Hinkle to cover the games this season. Thank you to all that subscribe and for those reading this that aren’t subscribed, I’m always reachable via Twitter DMs to answer questions.