Butler's offense may still be in exhibition mode, but the defense sure isn't. Butler fought past an opening barrage of 3 pointers from Southern Indiana to eventually run away with a 79-58 victory. Star guard Kamar Baldwin struggled with only 6 points on 2-11 shooting, but Paul Jorgensen picked him up with 24 points on 10-17 from the field. Redshirt sophomore Joey Brunk emerged with 14 points and 7 rebounds while Henry Baddley was the only other Bulldog in double figures with 13. There's only so much to be learned in an exhibition against a Division II opponent, but here are a few quick observations from my opening look at the 2018-2019 Butler Bulldogs.
Pressure Defense Carries Butler
Butler's defense got off to a slow start, giving up 11 points before the first media timeout, but they closed the door after that. The Bulldogs three guard lineup picked up the pressure and forced 13 turnovers in the first half, holding USI to only 13 more points the rest of the period. The Screaming Eagles managed only 58 total points for the game despite lighting up the nets at a 47% clip from behind the 3-point arc. And 15 of those came in the final five minutes as the benches cleared.
Last week I called Jorgensen "one of the most overlooked players in the league" and this evening was a prime example of why. He's going to see a lot more touches this year, and if the regular season results look anything like this it's going to be great for this offense. Jorgensen scored 24 points on 10-17 shooting from the field while grabbing 5 rebounds and not turning the ball over a single time. His 0 assist total is also misleading. He created several open jump shots for teammates but none of them dropped. We've seen outbursts like this before from the senior, so this isn't anything new, but he needs to step up and provide these performances with more consistency for Butler. Hopefully he can carry this confidence into the games against Division 1 opponents.
Butler isn't going to win many games where Kamar Baldwin shoots 2-11 from the floor. Fortunately for Butler there probably aren't going to be many of those games. I have no concerns about his cold shooting night moving forward. If the performance of Kamar Baldwin is anywhere near the top of your worry list at the start of the season it's probably going to be a pretty good year.
One of my biggest concerns coming into the season is the performance of sophomore center Joey Brunk. Brunk came to Butler two years ago as a highly touted recruit and fan favorite, but after a redshirt year and a freshman season where he saw very little playing time he is still an unknown. As one of only two post players on the roster the backup center position is pretty much his by default and Butler will have to sink or swim with him in there. Through a pair of exhibitions he looks like he's ready to swim. Brunk has slimmed down and is looking more mobile and confident then ever. His 14 points was second on the team, but it's his defense that stood out to me more. He's clearly made huge strides defending the ball screen over the summer and doesn't appear to be the defensive liability he was last season. Going up against USI is nothing compared to battling with centers in the Big East, but I'm more optimistic about his role on the team than I was before the game.
Baddley was Butler's third leading scorer on the evening with 13 points on 5-8 shooting. If he can consistently provide that type of opportunistic scoring it's going to completely transform what Butler can do. His length and athleticism give Butler a huge boost on the defensive end. The more minutes he gets the better Butler will be defensively. Right now he's coming off the bench, but if he can provide this type of offensive spark he may challenge for a spot in the starting rotation. He's never going to get the attention of someone like Kamar, but versatile role players like Baddley who can do a little bit of everything are crucial to championship caliber players. Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard get all the credit for Butler's Final Four but they don't get there without Ronald Nored, Willie Veasley, or Shawn Vanzant filling out the roster. Baddley has the chance to be that caliber of player.
Can Butler's Rotation Go Deeper Than 7?
I'm sold that Butler's 7 man rotation can be competitive in a crowded Big East and get them back to the NCAA tournament once again. If they want to challenge for a league title or make a deeper run in March they will need an 8th guy to step up and give Butler some key minutes at times. Jordan Tucker might be capable of providing a boost when he becomes eligible next semester, but there are plenty of games in the meantime. It appears to be a battle between Christian David and Jerald Gillens-Butler at the moment. Both have had some good moments in these exhibitions, but I'm not sure either have shown enough to lock down minutes. Could Markeese Hastings challenge for that spot once he's healthy? Almost every season an unexpected performer emerges. Hopefully one of those players can claim that title this season.