It wasn't always pretty, but the Bulldogs passed their first high major test of the season, defeating Ole Miss 83-76 in thrilling comeback fashion to move to a perfect 3-0 on the season. Paul Jorgensen led Butler with 27 points, Kamar Baldwin had 23, while Joey Brunk was in double figures for the 3rd straight game with 15.
Butler's 1-2 Punch
It's no secret where the majority of Butler's offense is going to come from this season. Paul Jorgensen carried the Bulldogs out of the gate with 21 first half points on 8-12 shooting from the floor. He finished with a career high 27 and once again didn't turn the ball over a single time. Jorgensen has only 1 turnover on the year, an impressive stat considering he's taken 45 shots and dished out 8 assists during that time. Kamar Baldwin was having an absolutely forgettable game early on but found a way to turn it on when his team desperately needed him down the stretch. He scored 12 points in the final 6:03 to will Butler to a comeback victory after Ole Miss had used a 9-0 run to build a 5 point lead. Kamar finished with 23 points on only 5-17 shooting from the floor but 12-12 shooting from the line while once again leading the team in rebounds (8) and assists (5). He did struggle again with 4 turnovers, all coming in the first half.
Gillens-Butler picked up 3 fouls in less than 90 seconds early in the first half and that opened the door for Christian David. He didn't disappoint. The sophomore knocked in a pair of 3 pointers and sparked a Butler run with maybe the biggest play the game. With 5 minutes remaining and the Bulldogs down 2, Ole Miss center Dominik Olejniczak snuck in behind the Bulldog zone, caught a pass, and went up for the dunk. David quickly closed the gap in the paint, went up and denied the 7 footer at the rim, and then snagged the rebound. Five seconds later the game was tied, and Butler went on to score on the next 2 possessions to claim the lead for good. David certainly has a lot of improvements to make, most noticeably on the defensive end, but it's a testament to Butler's depth that a player who saw only 8 total minutes in the first 2 games is capable of coming off the bench and delivering 20 game changing minutes when the rest of the team is really struggling.
Getting To The Stripe
It wasn't just a cliche today. Taking care of the basketball and knocking down free throws was the difference. Butler was +5 in turnover battle and shot 85% from the line compared to 62% for Ole Miss. The Bulldogs were a perfect 18-18 from the charity stripe in the second half. Butler was an outstanding free throw shooting team last season (78%), but the problem was they didn't get there enough, ranking 335th in the country in free throw rate. Kamar Baldwin's inability to consistently get to the line was certainly a factor in that.
This year is a complete 180 for Butler's star guard. Baldwin was a perfect 12-12 from the line tonight, the first time in his career he's taken double digit free throw attempts. His free throw rate has jumped from 21.5 last year to 50 this season. He and Brunk are each in the top 75 in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes at just under 17 FD/40 between the two. That ability to get to the line is going to make for a more efficient and consistent offense than last season.
Where's The Defense?
Butler's offense has been tremendous at the start with performances of 90, 84, and 83 points to open the season. The defense hasn't kept up, and it's hard to pinpoint an exact issue. One big problem tonight was defensive rebounding as Ole Miss grabbed 10 offensive boards at a 34.4% rate. Normally defensive rebounding is a strength for the Bulldogs, but they simply couldn't get stops in the 2nd half playing man to man defense and were forced to go zone where they gave up many of these second attempts. The Butler zone is effective as a change of pace, but it's not good enough to be relied upon as their primary defense.
That man to man defense must improve if Butler wants to contend in the Big East. It's going to have to start by picking up pressure and generating more steals. Butler ranks 311th in the nation in steal percentage through 3 games. Last year Butler's guard trio of Thompson, Baldwin, and Jorgensen posted steal rates of 2.8%, 2.7%, and 2.2% respectively. Early this season those numbers are down to 2.2%, 1.6%, and 1.7%. This Bulldog squad has the potential to be an excellent defensive team, but it all starts with pressure out top. I expect that to increase next week as Butler travels south to the Bahamas for the Battle For Atlantis.