It’s an understatement to say that most of 2013 has been pretty rough for the Butler Bulldogs basketball program and its fans.
Beginning in March, the Bulldogs fell to Marquette in the NCAA tournament, effectively losing their top two scorers in Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith.
Things were looking up in July when they officially joined the Big East Conference, but then three days later, shocking the sports world, beloved coach Brad Stevens took off for the NBA.
Then the recruits began to fall. Trevon Blueitt and Trey Lyles announced they’d be playing elsewhere. And returning leading scorer Roosevelt Jones suffered a season-ending wrist injury on the team’s trip to Australia.
And perhaps the saddest news of all, the university’s mascot Butler Blue II, “America’s Dog,” died on Aug. 31, about five months after retiring, leaving duties to Butler Blue III, or “Trip.”
Brandon Miller steps in this season for Stevens, and last week, fans got their first look at the schedule he’ll face in his first year.
The Bulldogs open the regular season with Lamar on Nov. 9 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, playing one preseason game the week before against Stevens’ alma mater Depauw (D-III).
The non-conference home schedule is a bit drab, with the most exciting games coming in the form of Vanderbilt (Nov. 19), and Princeton (Nov. 16). The rest of the games are pretty weak, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a first-year coach with a relatively inexperienced team.
The only true non-conference road games for the Bulldogs are in-state, with Evansville and Ball State.
So far, the schedule sounds pretty boring, but don’t worry. The Bulldogs will face some tough opponents on neutral courts. The first game of that kind is vs. Washington State in the Old Spice Classic on Thanksgiving Day in Orlando, Fla.
They will face the winner or loser of the Purdue-Oklahoma State game the next day.
The other side of the bracket features Memphis-Siena and LSU-St. Joseph’s.
The Bulldogs have had recent success in holiday tournaments, reaching the Maui Invitational finals last year, upsetting Marquette and North Carolina on their way, before losing to Illinois. In 2010 Butler won the Diamondhead Classic in Honolulu.
This field looks to be pretty difficult, but it will certainly be a time for Miller and his Bulldogs to get out of Indiana for a while, focus as a team and measure where they stand relatively early in the season.
Upon returning north, the Bulldogs will have two “should-win” games in North Dakota and Manchester (D-III) before the third annual Crossroads Classic.
In the inaugural Classic in 2011 the Bulldogs won a wild one against Purdue. Last season was even crazier, as sophomore walk-on Alex Barlow hit a late shot in overtime to knock of No. 1-ranked Indiana, the first upset of that stature in school history.
This year, instead of playing Notre Dame because of Indiana and Purdue’s conference ties, the Bulldogs again face the Boilermakers on Dec. 14, a potential rematch from a few weeks earlier.
Big East play starts up on New Year’s Eve, as Villanova travels to Indianapolis for Butler’s first home Big East game. The contest is part of a five-game marathon on Fox Sports 1. As they begin a new TV deal with the Big East, the network will broadcast all five of the conference’s debut games, beginning at noon, and ending at 10 p.m.
The Big East is putting on a true round robin schedule, with each team playing every other team in a home-and-home format.
Highlights of the home conference schedule include Georgetown on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 5 p.m., as well as a rubber match with Marquette.
The Bulldogs took game one last year on Clarke’s “Maui Miracle” three-pointer, and then saw their season end when Smith tried to create his own magic from beyond the arc at the buzzer.
The Bulldogs will also see Xavier on a Tuesday night in February. The Bulldogs and Musketeers both join the new league, coming from the Atlantic 10 last season. The rivalry goes deeper than that, with games like the infamous clock-stop in 2009, allowing for Gordon Hayward to hit a buzzer beater. And last year’s 15-point loss during the opening week of the season still lingers over Indianapolis.
And off the court, Xavier University has adopted “The Xavier Way,” which Bulldogs are quick to point out is a complete knock-off of “The Butler Way,” making this game one that Bulldog fans will really be looking forward to.
So, what are the grades and expectations for the Bulldogs?
Non-conference schedule grade: C+
Non-conference expectations and analysis:
The Bulldogs should be able to enter Big East play with somewhere between six and nine wins, with the biggest challenges coming on the neutral floor and at home against Vandy.
Big East schedule grade: B
Big East schedule expectations and analysis:
The Bulldogs have the generic schedule in the Big East, meaning that they’ll see some good teams (Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova) twice, and they’ll see some pretty solid competition in every other team twice, sort of leaving it up in the air as to how they’ll fare this year..
Dawgs fans, and most of America, have been getting used to seeing Butler as a powerhouse among the mid-majors. This year, don’t expect that. They’ll be a decent team, as coach Miller learned under perhaps college basketball’s greatest “what-if-he-stayed” stories in Stevens. But now that they’re not a mid major anymore, certainly don’t expect a Stevens-caliber team, especially not a 2009-2011-Stevens-National-Runner-Up team.
Instead, expect to see a lot of young guys (six freshmen, two sophomores and six juniors) growing into their own and setting Miller up for a good last go-round with Stevens’ remaining recruits the next two seasons.
Expect Butler to be a little over .500 on the year, needing a deep run, if not a win, in the Big East Tournament to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
When all is said and done, this team will be remembered for the growth they made after losing such vital pieces in Jones, Stevens, Clarke and Smith. Oh, and Blue, too.
The 2009 Xavier game:
Rotnei Clarke beats Marquette:
Alex Barlow beats IU at Crossroads Classic: