The latest AP hoops rankings were released on Monday, and the Butler Bulldogs (14-1) jumped to #6 in the poll (previously #11)–which is their highest in-season AP ranking in program history.
It’s a result that even the most optimistic Butler Bulldogs fan entering the season probably didn’t see coming (and if they said they did, chances are they are probably lying).
Yes, the Bulldogs were expected to be improved, having an actual power forward, Bryce Nze, on the roster and the defensive upgrade Derrik Smits was theoretically expected to provide over departed big man Joey Brunk at center (who graded out poorly defensively last season)–as well as the improvements their returning players were expected to make over the course of the summer.
However, this is still a team that was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big East entering the season. Right now, they’re the toast of the conference, and one of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball.
That’s a credit to head coach LaVall Jordan, who was on the hot seat to start the season–having finished 16-17 last year (7-11 in the Big East), but has made some necessary improvements to the offense (featuring more backdoor cuts and off-the-ball movement) and helped his players get back to the program’s roots when it’s had its most success: great defense.
It’s been a major point of emphasis so far this season for Butler–and with tremendous results.
According to KenPom.com, the Bulldogs rank 4th in the country in Adjusted Defense, and they’re currently allowing the fourth fewest points in all of college basketball (54.1 avg. ppg).
Butler also has held opposing teams to shooting just 37.2% from FG (15th best) and 26.4% from 3 point (10th best) in all of Division I basketball.
The Bulldogs have one of the best defensive backcourts in all of college basketball: starting point guard Aaron Thompson and shooting guard Kamar Baldwin, but they also play great team defense with superior rotations and hedging by their big men–playing as one cohesive unit.
In addition to playing great defense, this Butler team is very experienced.
For perspective, no rotational player for the Bulldogs (except for freshman guard Khalif Battle) is an underclassman. The Bulldogs have juniors, seniors, and redshirt seniors/grad transfers as the players receiving their heavy minutes–as “battle-tested veterans”–who have played in a lot of big games.
This Butler team also has a go-to scorer, Kamar Baldwin, who can get buckets when they simply have to have them, and one of the most efficient shooters in college basketball, redshirt senior wing Sean McDermott.
McDermott isn’t the Bulldogs only shooter though, as junior wing Jordan Tucker, as essentially their “6th man”, gives them another effective shooter coming off the bench for major minutes.
This Butler team also has rare size with Bryce Golden (6’9″, 250 pounds) and Derrik Smits (7’1″, 245 pounds) platooning at center, and grit, with high energy, hustling starting power forward Bryce Nze (6’7″, 225 pounds) always trying to make the extra effort play in its frontcourt.
The Bulldogs have a tough road ahead of them with the Big East expected to be a bloodbath–a conference that could see as many as 6 or 7 teams eventually making March Madness.
They’ll be “the hunted” now with a Top 10 ranking on their backs–especially on the road. Still, this team has shown a lot of poise to start the season in the face of adversity and that much shouldn’t change.
They’re ‘Bulldog tough’ and have already been forged in the fires of a challenging out-of-conference schedule.
For what it’s worth, the Bulldogs also rank 3rd in Net and are 5th in the latest KenPom rankings.
Their next matchup will be on the road at Rhode Island against Providence this Friday night (9 PM EST, FS1).