Butler Basketball: Hark's Bark Mailbag (5.21.21)

The 2021 offseason is in full swing. With that in mind, it is time to jump into the first Hark’s Bark since mid-season. But while the dead period for recruiting is coming to an end, none of our mailbag questions this month center around potential targets in the 2022 and 2023 classes. I think that speaks to the curiosity regarding what the Dawgs might look like during this coming season. Even though basically the entire roster is coming back from last season, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

This potentially stems from the fact that the 2020-21 roster never got a chance to actually prove what it was. There was never a single game with the whole roster healthy and many of their games had to be played with three or more guys missing from action. While we learned much from the campaign, particularly from the now-rising-sophomores, those only led to more questions about what to expect from the Dawgs. Is an NCAA Tournament appearance on the horizon? Perhaps, but we will have to wait to find out.

As we traverse that waiting period, I took to ButlerHoops.com in search of questions to answer in this month’s Hark’s Bark’s mailbag. Thanks as always to those who asked Qs and I will be sure to do this again next month. Now, let’s dive in.

With so many older guys on the roster this year, outside of Harris, which of the younger guys do you see having the biggest impact?

For the sake of answering this question, I will assume “younger guys” to be the underclassmen on the roster. With the freshmen being massive unknowns, I find it safer to bet on a returning sophomore (Harris excluded) to take the leap into major impact status. Of those three remaining options, I think that JaKobe Coles is the most likely to make a major difference, though Myles Tate would be my choice if I could be promised he would be healthy for most of the year.

Coles was rounding into form as a strong freshman contributor during this past season prior to going down with his meniscus injury. He averaged 6.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game. It is not easy to be a strong finisher from Day 1 at the collegiate level but that is what Coles was able to do; he connected on 12 of his 15 2-point attempts (80.0 percent) in his six appearances. His floor-spacing (28.6 percent from three) should improve with a collegiate offseason and I think he is the healthiest and most polished of the non-Harris sophomores.

Butler’s frontcourt is certainly rather full with several key pieces returning. Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden are locked to start while Ty Groce (Eastern Michigan transfer) is also set to see minutes at the ⅘ spots in the lineup. I do not think Bo Hodges and Coles overlap much and thus I see Coles playing similar minutes in ‘21-22 to as he did when healthy this past year. He should be somewhere in the 15-20 minutes per game range and can be highly impactful.

Going back to Tate, though, he would be my answer to this question if I was sure that he would be healthy. He struggled as a shooter during his freshman season but was otherwise quite solid and showed promise for the future. With Aaron Thompson as the lone other point guard on the roster, there is once again a very clear path for Tate to see consistent minutes. If his shot returns to what it was in high school - more on that soon - then he could be due for a massive jump and his impact would be huge. As of now, though, there is no published timetable for his return from an ACL tear in the season finale.

Myles Wilmoth is the last returning sophomore but he might still be another year away from a jump in impact. He was impressive compared to expectations during this past year but the excitement about him was more about the flashes than the consistency. With how loaded BU’s frontcourt is, he might not see a major increase in minutes even if his game takes a leap. Once Nze, Golden (possibly), Groce, Hodges, and David all leave after ‘21-22, though, then it will be Wilmoth’s time to truly shine and all Dawgs’ fans should be eager to see his ceiling.

What emphasis do you think the staff should and will put on class balance? If you had to guess, how many do you think they will redshirt?

Class balance is extremely hard to juggle in the modern era. Not only is the transfer portal snagging seemingly several players per team each offseason (Butler was thankfully able to retain almost everyone this year), but the “free year” is also going to throw things off for the next few seasons. With that said, I think that having strict class balance guidelines just isn’t going to work as consistently anymore as it might have in the past. Every offseason will be different and the staff needs to be more fluid than rigid with how many commits it will seek in a given year.

As far as Butler’s scholarship management goes, I think it likely that they will try to fill to one below the limit when able. This is what I believe they did with the 2021 class to preserve flexibility in the transfer market. This situation allows for exploring adding an impact piece every offseason even when everyone returns while also keeping enough players on the roster in case of an unforeseen exodus of transfers. It is a nice balance to keep options open.

Redshirts are seemingly growing less common across college basketball but I would expect that Butler’s staff talks to each of its freshmen about the possibility this year. It is no secret that the Dawgs are well over the normal scholarship limit with five seniors returning with their “free year”. With how experienced this team is, it will be difficult to get freshmen the minutes they would receive in a normal year. The Dawgs are going to graduate a ton of rotation pieces after this coming season and the 2021 class would then filter into big roles in ‘22-23.

Whether or not any of the freshmen actually redshirt will come down to the conversations each of them have with the staff. I’m sure all of them will want to play - such is the nature of every competitor. As far as most likely to crack the rotation, I think the roster sets up for Jayden Taylor and Pierce Thomas to play more than DJ Hughes right away. If I had to pick one to redshirt, I think Hughes makes the most sense given the lack of a path to PT and the huge opportunities he will have over the following seasons.

I have no idea how many of them will be open to the possibility of redshirting, but the decision to do so could be a win-win for all involved. The players would be able to develop for a year before playing major roles and the staff would be able to groom them for the future rather than needing to juggle even more pieces in the rotation.

With the young guys we have, and the time we could have to develop them, do you think we have a legitimate shot to win a Big East regular-season title in the next 5 years?

I don’t know about winning a Big East regular-season title. Villanova has that particular title pretty much on lock for the next several years, in my opinion. There might be the occasional year in which another program swoops in to win the league, but those are going to be few and far between. As things stand right now, the Wildcats boast easily the best head coach in the conference and are also recruiting at a much higher level. With that in mind, I am not going to prognosticate a Big East title for the Dawgs over the next five years.

I do think that Butler has the coaching and young talent to threaten the second weekend in the NCAA Tournament at some point in the near future, though. Too many people have forgotten the 2019-20 season too quickly - that was just one year ago and the Dawgs were a Top 25 team essentially all season long. This staff has proven capable of leading a talented roster to success and I am a believer in their ability to build talented rosters in more years than not. LaVall and Co. are excellent at building relationships and landing recruits.

To answer your question in short, I wouldn’t peg the Dawgs for a BE title but that doesn’t mean the program’s potential is not high.

How about an update on injury recovery from our limping wounded?

I do not have any specific injury notes to report at this time. The best that I have heard is that a few players appear to be ahead of schedule in their recoveries. We will see if that comes to fruition. I will try to get better updates on the statuses of everyone as the offseason progresses and more players get back on campus.

With this question in mind, though, I am starting to come around to the idea that Myles Tate might be ready for action sooner than some think. Before diving into my rationale, I want to first state that none of this is backed by fact or inside information but rather just my own conclusions based on the staff’s activity this offseason. This is just a hypothesis.

Butler has not been shy about getting involved in the transfer market. While they might not be targeting players as openly as Arkansas or some others, the Dawgs have contacted several players and landed one (Groce). Odds are likely they are also still in the market for another transfer commit before next season starts as well. When analyzing *who* Butler has targeted, though, there are very few lead guards that have been on their radar.

Perhaps this is just a result of a lack of guards that fit their system coming available. With over 1,600 players in the portal, though, I don’t find that to be that plausible. Considering Aaron Thompson’s injury history, one would think they would be more openly targeting backup point guard options if Tate is really going to miss as much time as some have expected.

Tate suffered his ACL tear in mid-March, meaning it will have been eight months since the injury when the 2021-22 season begins. While he would obviously lose the whole offseason of development, I’m not ruling out the possibility of him playing earlier than has been previously anticipated. It is definitely possible that I am reading too far into Butler’s transfer targets, though. The staff might just feel confident in the abilities of Harris or a freshman to run the offense when Thompson is on the bench or, hopefully not, is injured.

By March, which freshman is getting the most minutes per game, and how many minutes is that (including Scooby since he sat out last year)?

Given the makeup of Butler’s roster for this coming season, there are not a ton of minutes available for the incoming freshmen. That is just the facts of the situation. If one is going to significantly crack the rotation, though, I would expect it is someone that can seamlessly play multiple positions and make versatile contributions. I call these “chameleon players” as they can succeed in most five-man groups due to their ability to adapt to the skills of those around them and contribute in the best way possible.

Of the four freshmen on the roster, I feel as though Pierce Thomas is the best-suited to be a complementary player right away. As high as I am on Jayden Taylor, I feel as though he is better with the ball in his hands and is thus likely to be more successful in a high-usage role later in his career. Scooby, on the other hand, I simply haven’t seen play in over a year and it is impossible to know how he will look following his ACL rehab. I already mentioned that Hughes is stuck behind several already proven frontcourt players and I can’t see him playing a major role.

Thomas, though, could feasibly play 1-through-4 with his combination of size, athleticism, and playmaking. His handle is not quite up to lead-guard standards but he is a strong playmaker and played point guard for Brownsburg - it’s not a spot he is unfamiliar with. His natural position is on the wing, so filling minutes at the ⅔ wouldn’t be a surprise in the least. He is also one of the more physically prepared freshmen in the country, in my opinion, and his leaping ability and wide frame could allow him to play some small-ball 4 (though that is probably more down the road than this season).

From a skills standpoint, Thomas could see his minutes increase throughout the year by virtue of his 3-and-D potential. With his athleticism and length, his potential to be a defensive dynamo is obvious. Additionally, he is coming off a high school in which he shot 68-for-177 (38.4 percent) from beyond the arc, largely against more defensive attention that he will receive at the collegiate level. I think there is a good chance that he can be a mid-30s perimeter threat in his first season. With his bounce, he can also do damage on back cuts.

I’m not saying Thomas is a lock to lead the freshmen in minutes, or even crack the rotation, but I do think he is the most likely with his skill and playing style. I could see him getting ot the 15-20 minutes per game range in an ideal freshman season.

Is the 243nd ranked 3FG% team still in the market for a shooter? If so, names? How do you see the team improving its shooting from outside? Will any of the current newcomers play enough to make a difference to improve this subpar aspect?

I am operating under the belief that Butler is still active in the transfer market. I am unaware of whether that means they are targeting shooters, but I would guess that is near or at the top of the priority list. There are no specific names at this time, though that could change at any second; Butler seemingly always flies under the radar and then lands a commit.

As far as how they improve the 3-point shooting, I think a lot of this comes down to Myles Tate and Jair Bolden. These two combined to shoot 80-for-264 (30.3 percent). That is a ton of attempts to be nearly below 30 percent as a duo. Tate was the far bigger culprit of the two but Bolden was below his 2019-20 standard as well (though largely due to receiving far more defensive attention than he had in the past).

Here is what would have happened to Butler’s 3-point shooting percentage last season had Tate and Bolden hit closer to their prior documented rates (note that Tate’s numbers are from high school so he was bound to shoot lower, but perhaps not 15% lower):

We already know that Harris is a strong shooter, having connected on 40.3 percent of his 119 attempts last season. While some might be concerned about a potential regression after a great first year from the perimeter, statistics on hot-shooting freshmen indicate there is rarely a drop-off. I will publish more about why I believe Harris is likely to continue being a strong shooter in an article later this offseason (it’s already in my queue).

Harris is reliable from deep, and there are reasons to believe Tate/Bolden will both be better as well. Bryce Golden will hopefully improve on a 20.5 percent season from deep and JaKobe Coles is a good stretch forward when healthy - which he will be. Thompson, Hodges, and Wilmoth are likely to remain inefficient or non-threats from deep but there are a fair number of shooters on the roster and at least one (Harris) that is very solid. Nze likely won’t be as efficient as he was this past year but will increase his volume. The more shots coming from the good shooters relative to the bad, the better.

The other thing I will note is that the Dawgs need to be shooting fewer threes in 2021-22. Butler ranked 109th nationally in 3-point attempt rate last season largely in part to struggles inside the arc. With healthy versions of AT, Nze, Hodges, and Golden - along with more experienced Harris and Tate - the Dawgs should return to being a more interior-focused team. As much as blaming 3-point shooting for Butler’s offensive struggles is easy to do, I’d argue the much bigger problem was finishing on only 46.8 percent of 2PA (278th nationally).

If Butler is able to do a better job creating looks inside and finishing, they will not be as reliant on an average shooting team to make a ton of threes. That would go a long way in developing more offensive balance and displaying far better overall efficiency on that end. To answer your last question, I do not think any of the freshmen will play enough to really impact the team percentage much.

I know our culture is "special" compared to most other programs, but I'm still scratching my head at how LaVall and staff are going to keep everyone happy with playing time. Do you think it's possible we'll actually see 10+ guys play consistent minutes, especially once everyone is *hopefully* healthy?

For starters, I don’t think we will actually see 10+ guys playing consistent minutes. That is the only thing I feel remotely confident about responding with. Even if everyone is healthy, there just aren’t enough minutes to go around for more than eight or nine guys while keeping all of them in rhythm. Outside of that, the rest of your comments are all accurate. It is going to be a challenge and the staff is surely aware of that. As far as how they are going to go about constructing one, I think that starts with how everyone develops over this offseason.

Butler is a program that thrives with a full offseason to work with everyone. Coach Jordan has constantly preached “recruiting winners” and I can tell you that those winners are going to play angry this season as revenge for how 2020-21 went. The entire roster has room to develop this offseason and how much each player improves will dictate how the rotation comes together.

Additionally, I am under the impression that this staff is open with the players. Conversations will be had between coaches and players about minutes and how the future will play out. I understand that lack of playing time has led to transfers at other programs in the past, but I don’t think that will be the case with Butler next spring. Every youngster on the roster should understand that even if they do not play much this year, they will all play vital roles as soon as ‘22-23.

Butler is going to lose a lot of contributors after this coming year, opening the door for the next generation (2020 and 2021 classes) to take over the reins. I think it is a testament to Butler’s culture that even with everyone knowing how crowded the team was going to be in 2020-21, they all - Hastings excluded - decided to stay. I can’t wait to see what this immediate group can do and what the future core can follow it up with.

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