INDIANAPOLIS – John Calipari is not normal.
That’s not an insult at the man. That’s a compliment. The past two seasons, he’s sent nine players to the NBA Draft, and this year he may have his most talented team since making the jump from Memphis to Lexington.
It’s not supposed to work that way.
College teams aren’t supposed to lose NBA Draft picks every season without seeing some sort of an effect on their record the next season. After UNC won the 2009 national title and sent the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson to the league, the Heels went 5-11 in the league play before making the Final Four … of the NIT. UConn sent four players to the first round and five, total, to the draft after the 2006 season. They followed that up with a 17-14 campaign.
Butler is learning about the pitfalls of success the hard way this season.
After their seemingly miraculous run to the national title game in 2010, the Bulldogs lost Gordon Hayward to the lottery. Last season, it took them until February to finally figure out how to function without Hayward, but once they put it all together, Butler once again made the national title game. But Shelvin Mack left for the draft after the season and Matt Howard graduated, leaving Butler with a roster that lacked the kind of star power that we had begun to associate with Brad Stevens.
“We obviously lost some guys that could be seniors right now. The bottom line is thats important,” Stevens said after Butler lost 76-69 to Cleveland State on Friday night to drop them two games off the lead in the Horizon League. (A win Sunday against Youngstown State bumped them to 4-3, but still well behind Milwaukee.)
It’s also not an excuse.
When you have success as a coach at the collegiate level, it means that you have good basketball players. And when good coaches coach up good basketball players, early entry to the NBA Draft is always a possibility. The fact that Stevens has been able to turn two unheralded recruits into players good enough to be drafted is just as much a sign of his coaching acumen as Butler’s back-to-back Final Fours.
And Stevens does have some pieces on his roster with the potential to be very good players down the road.
Sophomore forward Khyle Marshall is a dynamic, game-changing athlete that is still learning how to be a basketball player. Sophomore guard Chrishawn Hopkins has all kinds of ability as a scorer and playmaker but hasn’t quite grasped the concept of shot selection or ball protection. Freshman Roosevelt Jones, who looks he should be get 20 carries a game for the school’s football team, will end up being the kind of physical defensive presence that Butler hasn’t had since Willie Veasley graduated. Jackson Aldridge and Kameron Woods also have a bright future.
The one constant with those guys, however, is the future tense. They “will be” this or they “could turn into” that. Potential has little value until it is actually realized.
“Come on, now. Two Final Fours? That was an unbelievable team those two years,” Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said. “They don’t have [Howard, Mack or Hayward] anymore, so that’s a whole different ball game. However, the intensity and how hard they played was similar. They’re young, you can’t judge their youth right now. They’re going to make some shots and do some things.”
“Brad’s going to get them going. There’s no question in my mind.”
There are two major issues for this Butler team, and I’m not sure how fixable they are.
The biggest problem is Ronald Nored. Let me make this very clear: I love what Nored brings to the table as a player. He’s an outstanding leader, he’s a coach on the floor, he’s one of the best on-ball defenders in the country and he is without a doubt the kind of player that I would take on my team any day of the week.
That said, he’s being forced to play a role that isn’t his strong suit. With Hopkins struggling this year, Stevens has to use Nored in the role of playmaker. Nored is capable of finding assists, but he’s a bit too turnover prone and he doesn’t have the kind of scoring ability that is ideal in a guy who has the ball in his hands at the end of a clock.
The other issue is that Butler has turned into a team that cannot shoot the ball. They are currently hitting just 60.6 percent from the free throw line and 30.3 percent from three. The Bulldogs best three-point shooters this season? 6-11 center Andrew Smith and Nored.
That’s not exactly ideal.
“We’ve shot, talked about and worked on free throws more than we ever have,” Stevens said. “The bottom line is we gotta get over the mental hump of knocking them in and stringing them together. If we miss one we can’t let it affect the next one.”
The future is bright at Butler, as there is plenty of potential for growth. And that growth may not even need to take place next season. If you remember, Butler was 6-5 in the Horizon midway through last season before finally finding the answer and making a run to a share of the regular season title and the Horizon League tournament title.
Stevens, for one, doesn’t believe inexperience is a valid excuse for this group, as he made the point that “the only year that we were really experience heavy was last year.”
That’s fair, and as long as he has the reins of this team, you cannot count out the Bulldogs.
But until they start to show some significant improvement, no one will blame you for putting them on the back burner.