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Monday, August 2, 2010
Summer Buzz: Butler Bulldogs

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (Syracuse will be posted later this afternoon.) Up next? Georgetown.

In retrospect, we should have seen Butler coming.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. And sure, the Bulldogs lost a few early-season nonconference games (to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown, and UAB) that made their torrid undefeated run through the hapless Horizon League difficult to evaluate. Still, teams with defenses as efficient as Butler's -- which ranked No. 5 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency by the end of the season, a mark that improved as the team worked through its brilliant bracket run -- don't come along all that often.

Butler's methodical march to the precipice of a remarkable national title was a great story off the court. On the floor, it was less surprising. Even when it struggled to find points, Butler's stifling team defense was just that good. We should have seen it coming.

Hayward
Not only will Butler miss Gordon Hayward's scoring, but the Bulldogs need to replace his defensive production as well.
Will we make the same mistake in 2010-11? Will Butler be good enough to give us a chance? Or, with the losses of Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley, did Brad Stevens and company leave their best chance at a national title in Indianapolis?

Simply enough, those answers will depend on how well Butler can cope with the aforementioned losses, how Butler's remaining core -- a formidable one -- can collectively recreate Hayward's considerable offensive and defensive production.

And make no mistake: Hayward's contributions came all over the floor. While not a dominant player in any statistical category, the athletic 6-foot-8 forward was blatantly good at some things and subtly good at others. The blatantly good: Shooting (52.7 effective field goal percentage) and scoring (112.7 offensive rating), drawing fouls (5.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) and getting to the free throw line (57.9 percent free throw rate).

But Hayward, perhaps less blatantly, was also a major factor in Butler's defensive excellence. His block rate of 2.8 percent helped shore up Butler's interior defense, and he had by far the best defensive rebounding rate -- 23.3 percent, ranking him 67th in the country in the tally -- of anyone in Butler's often undersized lineup. The team's next-highest defensive rebounding percentage, 16.5, belonged to Matt Howard.

That last stat is notable for more than proving Hayward's versatility. In fact, Hayward's contributions on the defensive glass were the one thing holding Butler back from being a truly vulnerable defensive team. The Bulldogs' only real weakness in 2009-10 came on the defensive boards: Butler allowed its opponents to rebound 27.8 percent of its misses, the 18th-highest figure in the country. With Hayward gone, it's unclear who can help Butler shore up that already-exposed area of an otherwise stalwart defense.

Howard is the obvious candidate, but thanks to chronic foul trouble, Howard played few key minutes during Butler's tournament run. That will have to change; Howard will have to find a way to guard bigger, stronger opponents without taking himself out of the game for key stretches.

Another likely candidate is sophomore Andrew Smith. The 6-foot-11 forward has played limited minutes in his freshman season but was forced into action in the tournament by Howard's foul-prone habits. Smith is a big body, and playing him alongside Howard could alleviate the pressure on Butler's former Horizon League player of the year both in guarding and blocking out fellow big men.

Butler also has a pair of sneaky-good recruits that Stevens will hope can combine to approximate some form of the versatility lost with Hayward and Veasley's absences. Khyle Marshall, a 6-foot-6 small forward with a wealth of athleticism, was the No. 22-ranked small forward in the 2010 class. There's also 6-foot-9 Indiana native Eric Fromm, a power forward who's shown a penchant for defensive rebounding and an ability to start the break on the dribble. Some combination of those players -- mixed in with relative newcomer Smith -- could help Butler avoid the obvious pitfalls of losing Hayward's defensive contributions.

Butler will still be very good elsewhere. Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored are two of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Mack is good enough to handle an increased offensive scoring load. Howard, provided he can figure out how to stay on the floor, will be as solid and productive as ever. Butler was never particularly lethal on offense in 2009-10 -- even Hayward had his noticeable offensive flaws -- but they didn't have to be.

Whether that equation changes will have everything to do with whether Butler's newcomers can make up for the less noticeable things Hayward did for his team on the defensive end. If the Bulldogs can find a way to keep their only subpar area -- defensive rebounding -- from becoming an even greater liability in Hayward's absence, the Bulldogs won't be a surprise to anybody. They'll just be good.

If so, we'll see them coming before our brackets are completely busted. That much we know for sure.