INDIANAPOLIS – It was a weird feeling for the Butler Bulldogs last March, sitting and watching the NCAA Tournament unfold on their television sets.
It was the first time since time since 2014, and just the third time since 2006, that the Bulldogs didn’t participate in March Madness, and saw their season end in the opening round of the NIT at Nebraska.
All off-season, the players have used that as motivation and getting back to the style of Butler basketball that has become the trademark of the program.
“Everyone has a chip on their shoulder,” junior guard Aaron Thompson said. “Collectively, we weren’t happy with last year and want to get back to play the way we play. We have to get back to being a tough, gritty team that teams hate to play against.”
Head coach LaVall Jordan said that every year, the current Butler team defines what it means to play “Butler Basketball” and that he just wants this team to focus on getting better every day and being “Team 122,” and not focused on Butler teams of the past.
But one thing that is evident is that the players weren’t happy with a season in which they went 2-10 on the road and were just 3-7 in games decided by two or less possessions.
“We have to respond better to adversity,” senior guard Kamar Baldwin said. “We are working on the mental aspect in practice, whether it is a game situation or a hard drill, just moving on to the next play and focusing on that. We know it is a process, and we want to come in here and take it one day at a time to get where we want.”
Baldwin will be a key piece to that puzzle as he enters his final season at Butler.
The pre-season All- Big East selection averaged 17.0 points a game last year and is on pace to be a top-5 scorer in Butler history. But at time last year it was a struggle as he adjusted to being the No. 1 focus of opposing teams on the scouting report. Jordan said Baldwin learned a lot from last year, and will be able to identify things opposing teams are doing defensively to him this year after going through it.
He also noted that Baldwin has stepped up in the leadership department, becoming more vocal and taking ownership of the team.
Thompson, who started all 33 games last season besides Baldwin in the backcourt, said he expects Baldwin to have a big season.
“You can see it in his eyes,” Thompson said. “He comes to practice focused every day, and brings an energy like never before. He has a fire in his eyes, he is being more vocal and he’s ready to go.”
Also back after starting all 33 games is senior wing Sean McDermott, who averaged 9.5 points a game last year and hit better than 40 percent of his 3-pointers.
McDermott was on a path to being selected to the Pan-American Games roster this summer when he had to pull out of the tryouts because of a foot injury.
But his time at the tryout, which featured top players from around the Big East, was a confidence boost for the senior from Anderson.
“More than anything, it gave me a lot of confidence going out there to be out there with the league’s best and seeing where I stacked up,” McDermott said. “I felt pretty confident walking out of there that my game had improved during the summer, so that was helpful.”
One of the big question marks for the Bulldogs is their inside presence.
Butler lost both their centers, with Nate Fowler graduating and Joey Brunk transferring to Indiana.
In step two transfers, with Derrik Smits coming in as a graduate transfer from Valparaiso and Bryce Nze, who came from Milwaukee.
Smits, at 7-1, brings valuable size that will have an impact on both ends of the court.
Jordan said more than anything, his leadership has been important.
“He is a great teammate and has a great IQ,” Jordan said. “He came walking in new to our system, and is coaching some of the other guys like he has been here a few years. He has size and skill, but his leadership is big for us.”
Smits grew up watching Butler basketball, and was heavily considering the Bulldogs out of high school when Brad Stevens was the coach.
He said his goal for the season is to help get the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament, and get back to that style of play they were missing last year.
“Everyone on this team, old and new, has a chip on their shoulder,” Smits said. “I came here to help them get back to the NCAA Tournament. Everyone is hungry to get back there.”