Butler vs. Western Michigan (Nov. 25): Game preview, keys, notes

The 2020-21 college basketball is here. Those are words that I have been uncertain about whether or not I would type for the last several months. Tip-off times, though, are steadily approaching within the next 24 hours. And while cancelations are being announced left and right, Butler’s season-opener against Western Michigan on Wednesday night remains on the schedule. Sunlight may not be shining through the Hinkle Fieldhouse windows for the weeknight start time, but Butler fans across the country will still be eager to see their new-look roster take the court for the first time.

While three starters are returning from Butler’s Top 25 squad a year ago, there are also at least five newcomers poised to see significant minutes during the early portion of the season. South Carolina graduate transfer Jair Bolden appears locked into starting while a highly-touted recruiting class is ready to make its debut. As Bo Hodges remains waiverless at this point, it feels likely that one of those freshmen will hear their name called as a member of the starting lineup as well.

Even though Butler is widely projected to finish in the bottom half of the Big East this season, it should still be an exciting season in Indianapolis. In my opinion, the four upperclassmen seniors set the Dawgs up to be a bubble team at worst. The freshmen, then, will have their chances to push the team over the top and also ignite optimism for the future of the program. There is plenty of buzz regarding this recruiting class and I am eager to see the likes of Harris, Tate, Coles, and Wilmoth grace the Hinkle court for their first live-game action this week.

Now, without any further ado, let’s dive into previewing this opening matchup of 2020-21.

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Opponent Breakdown: Western Michigan.

As a quick recap of last season, Western Michigan put together a 13-19 (6-12 MAC) record in its 17th season under head coach Steve Hawkins. This mark was good enough for just second-to-last in the league and 237th in the final KenPom rankings. Coach Hawkins’ contract ended after the campaign and he was not renewed as the top man in Kalamazoo. Longtime assistant Clayton Bates now holds that claim and this will be his first season as a D-1 head coach. He does bring a high level of familiarity to the program given his longstanding presence on the WMU staff, but that doesn’t mean he has a ton of talent to work with.

Not only are the Broncos coming off a poor season but they also lost their two most important players to transfer. Michael Flowers (16.9 points) and Brandon Johnson (15.4 points) were the lone double-digit scorers on the roster and elected to head to South Alabama and Minnesota, respectively. While those were the only two significant roster losses this offseason, they are huge ones. They accounted for 46.6% of WMU’s total points scored themselves while Flowers led the team in assists and Johnson in rebounds.

In their absences, rising sophomores B.Artis White and Titus Wright will be tasked with making big leaps. These two averaged 6+ points per game each as freshmen and can be tough matchups.

For White, he is lightning-quick with a great handle but only stood at 5-9 last year. If WMU’s roster is to be believed, White grew three inches to 6-0 this year and that should make a significant difference. The point guard shot just 33.6 percent from deep, though he was not shy about letting it fly (8.6 3PA per 40). He can definitely be a tough cover on the perimeter and Butler standout Aaron Thompson should draw that matchup. Thompson will look to start his DPOY candidacy on a high note.

Wright, on the other hand, will likely be matched up with one of the Bryce Bros. At 6-8 and 250 pounds, he takes up a ton of space in the paint and does all of his damage around the basket. In fact, 84.8% of his total made shots last season came in “at-the-rim” situations. He had 12 dunks. While Wright does a nice job as a post-up option, over half of his makes at-the-rim were off assists. He also got to the free-line at a pretty steady rate, attempting 5.2 FTs per 40 minutes, and connected on 64.6 percent of them. The Bryces will need to avoid foul trouble against him or Butler will need to turn to JMM or Coles earlier than perhaps expected.

White and Wright will likely be surrounded by upperclassmen in the starting lineup. 6-4 junior Jason Whitens averaged 4.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season as a full-time starter. He should reprise his role at the “3”. Rafael Cruz Jr. was the team’s sixth man a year ago but his scoring (7.1 points) will be needed in the absences of Flowers and Johnson. Cal State Bakersfield transfer Greg Lee adds some much-needed size to the frontcourt at 6-9.

From a schematic perspective, Western Michigan did not do that much extremely well last season. They got to the free-throw line at the 103rd-best rate in the nation but lost their top two players by FTAr. With White as the presumed top scorer this year, WMU could be a bit more perimeter-oriented following a season in which 30.8% of their points came from 3-point shots (163rd-highest).

It’s tough to figure out how WMU will look without Flowers/Johnson, but most prognosticators agree it might not be pretty. The Broncos have a talented sophomore duo but are widely projected to finish near the bottom of the MAC again.

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Keys to the Game

1. Come out with purpose and set the example.

Butler has prided itself on making hustle plays and being “gritty not pretty” essentially since I started as a fan of the program. With veteran leadership that embodies The Butler Way leading the team this season, it’s reasonable to expect much of the same when it comes to making energy plays regardless of the opposition. If they do not, Aaron Thompson will be sure that they do. Regardless, considering how this offseason has been filled with uncertainty regarding whether or not there would be a college basketball season, everyone should be amped to take the court for a real game.

That energy needs to be put to use, though. With a mostly-upperclassman starting five, they should come out with a purpose to execute the gameplan from the opening tip. Butler’s bench is exceedingly young with six underclassmen that might see the court on Wednesday night. It will be up to Thompson, Nze, and Golden to set the example for the youngsters. Coach Jordan has spoken at length over the last two seasons about how great those three are as leaders, so I think that the Dawgs have a major strength in leadership.

When it comes to determining who the go-to scorers will be or who the shooters will be this season, we don’t have the answers as fans right now. And while we can draw as many conclusions from the season-opener as we want, all of the answers will not appear in just one contest. Evaluating the energy and purpose that the team plays with, though, is something to monitor. Those are things that can be consistent in every single game and will play a critical role in pushing this team to success.

Butler will be the heavy favorite to win this game and should look the part as soon as they can. Getting the underclassmen plenty of playing time should be a goal and that is only possible if the starters build an early lead. Getting Harris, Tate, Coles, and Wilmoth lots of PT in the opening games could pay major dividends later in the year.

2. Prioritize frontcourt touches early and often.

Butler should have personnel advantages at most positions in this game, but I think the largest gap might be in the frontcourt. Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden are both proven starters that are prepped to average double-digit points per game this season. They should both receive more touches this year and getting them involved early and often against WMU would be a great place to start. For reference, Western Michigan was a decent interior defensive team last season, surrendering 49.8% shooting on those attempts (193rd nationally), but Butler’s efficiency-focused bigs should be able to win their matchups.

Not only am I expecting the Dawgs to give their bigs early post touches, but they should be utilized in pick-and-pop situations as well. If Butler is going to succeed this season, then its frontcourt will need to stretch the floor out to 3-point range with relative consistency. WMU’s Wright is a big body capable of eating space in the paint, but he will have a tough time defending on the perimeter. Putting Golden, Nze, and even JaKobe Coles in positions where they can pull him away from the basket with their jumpers or beat him off the dribble for finishes could be a strong gameplan.

Versatility is the name of the game in Butler’s frontcourt with guys that can defend, pass, finish at the rim, and stretch the floor a little bit. The forwards/bigs will be the biggest strength of this team, in my opinion, so why not go to them right away to establish an interior advantage?

3. Move the ball offensively.

Butler was an interesting team last season in terms of ball-movement. During their terrific 12-1 non-conference run, the Dawgs dished out assists on 57.9% of their total made shots, a mark that ranked in the Top 100 nationally. This also shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Aaron Thompson’s ability to dictate the offense. Once the calendar flipped to conference play, though, the Dawgs recorded far fewer assists, only recording them on 45.8% of made shots - that mark ranked last in the Big East.

There is no glaringly obvious reason for this drastic shift, but perhaps the most notable was needing to turn to Kamar Baldwin iso-ball a bit more in conference play than in the non-con.

I’m sure that AT missing a few games also hurt. Without Baldwin on the roster this year and with Thompson healthy, I’d expect the crunch-time offense to move the ball at a higher rate. After all, it will likely be Thompson commanding the possessions and he is not often a shoot-first offensive player. I’m expecting a much higher overall team assist rate than the 50.9% that was recorded last year (200th nationally).

If Butler is to remain a solid offensive team, I think crisp ball-movement will be necessary. While the Dawgs have more self-creators on their roster this year compared to last, most are unproven and nobody is in the same stratosphere as Baldwin. Working through sets on each possession and probing defenses to create the best looks for teammates should be the agenda. Butler needs to operate on a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” agenda this year and that starts with elite defense and strong ball-movement.

Hark’s Bark (Other things I’m watching for)

Who will be the fifth starter?

Bo Hodges is not yet eligible to play (waiver pending) and that leaves an open spot in the lineup. My current frontrunner would be freshman Chuck Harris in a three-guard lineup alongside Bolden and Thompson. Harris brings a well-built 6-2 frame to the court and will not be overmatched physically. He adds another playmaker to the lineup as well with the ability to hit catch-and-shoot jumpers. Harris is the most college-ready freshman, in my opinion.

If the Dawgs want more of a shooting threat on the floor, then Myles Tate is the option while going “big” could yield JaKobe Coles on the lineup card. If Coach Jordan elects to go with experience, maybe we could see a Markeese Hastings sighting earlier than some expect. I do think it will be a freshman, though, and Harris is my early pick.

What does the chemistry look like with Thompson/Bolden?

This will be Aaron Thompson’s first season without Kamar Baldwin alongside him in Butler’s starting backcourt. And while Jair Bolden is an experienced combo guard with three collegiate seasons under his belt, Thompson will need to develop a rapport with him in terms of knowing his favorite spots to shoot or his preferred driving alnes. Thompson indicated to me last week that their relationship has grown well in practice over the last few weeks and I am eager to see it on the court.

Bolden’s floor-spacing will be vital for Butler to be successful. Thompson is going to be the main man feeding him the rock, so seeing them on the right page early would be a great sign. The same also applies to Thompson’s chemistry with the freshmen (namely Myles Tate as an off-screen and transition shooting threat), but Bolden will be the one seeing the majority of the backcourt minutes next to AT. Thompson is the straw that stirs the drink for Butler and his leadership should be evident on a team full of newcomers.

What will be the big surprise(s)?

Without having an in-depth look at preseason practices, every word I write in this article is speculative. I have studied the film from last season, watched several games of each freshmen, and asked questions of the coaches and players throughout the last few months. At the end of the day, though, there are bound to be a few things that surprise me on Wednesday night and I am curious what they will be.

Could it be one of the sophomores stepping up and playing big minutes? Perhaps I was correct about Bryce Nze being more active as a shooter? Maybe we see more three-big lineups with JaKobe Coles as he is rumored to be impressing in a big way? Could we see Mike Parker as a rotation piece as a walk-on? I have no idea what the surprise will be, but there is sure to be at least one.

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Thank you as always for reading! This article was released a day early to patrons. If you are reading the free version on gameday, there is no pressure to subscribe but you are certainly welcome to. If you have any questions, be sure to reach out. I hope you all enjoy the game and have a Happy Thanksgiving!


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