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Butler Has Surprising New Look

11.10.2012 at 5:57pm - Basketball Times

BY LEW FREEDMAN

Basketball Times

INDIANAPOLIS—The run and gun Bulldogs. Really. Remember those Butler teams that clawed their way to the Final Four two years running? Remember how they gutted out more close games than Stanley Cup champions? Butler under coach Brad Stevens raised the protection of tiny leads to an art form.

For those who thought the biggest change at Hinkle Fieldhouse during the 2012-13 season was going to be the program's switch from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10, they may be in for an eye-opening surprise. If the Bulldog style unveiled in the season opener Saturday afternoon in a 74-59 victory over Elon turns into the standard fare Bulldogs, somebody is going to get bushwhacked.

Saturday's 6,309 witnesses saw a Butler team that regularly executed fast-breaks and were as likely to launch a 3-point jumper as try any other suggestion in the playbook. It also helped that the Bulldogs had snipers on the perimeter that could make those dagger-to-the-heart shots instead of watching them clang off the rim.

Last year's 22-15 squad was the gang that couldn't shoot straight. The two predecessor teams made it to the NCAA title game, but those Bulldogs seemed to survive on small miracles, by making a crucial defensive play, or lay-up at the right time, not blasting people out of the building.

An oddity of this game is that it was part of the Maui Invitational. It was Hawaii without the beach. Although eight teams will still play three games in the 29th annual event in Hawaii, not all of the teams in "regional” Maui action get to see sand up close. Butler is one of the invitees. Elon is not.

Even if the Phoenix won Saturday it wouldn't have won a berth in Hawaii. This entire "Maui On The Mainland” deal is pretty much a scam to get the invited teams a free fourth game in their scheduling. They kind of let you in the back door if your name is Elon and only a handful of fans nationwide even know your geography or your league. Elon is located in North Carolina and plays in the Southern Conference.

Stevens said the veteran visiting team worried him going into this match-up. There aren't many Bulldogs left from the two-straight finalist teams. Center Andrew Smith is the only active player in the United States who has appeared in two championship games. Heck, even Blue the Bulldog is on the way out. He is being trailed around for instruction in being Blue by a younger bulldog this season. Yes, Butler has a bulldog red-shirting.

Smith may have had the worst game of his career against Elon, fouling out with zero points, but the new guards alone soothed feelings. Senior Rotnei Clarke, a transfer from Arkansas, scored 21 points and that included hitting five-of-10 from beyond the arc. The 6-foot Clarke scored Butler's first 12 points in five-and-a-half minutes, but then sat out the rest of the first half because he picked up two fouls.

"I was just trying to be aggressive,” Clarke said. "We kept it going.”

They did, running the lead to as large as 41-23 before halftime.

Clarke is no run-of-the-mill transfer. In 2008-09 for the Razorbacks he averaged 12.2 ppg. In 2009-10, he averaged 15.1 ppg. He averaged 15.2 ppg. in 2010-11 and was named second-team SEC that season. In a November, 2009 game against Alcorn State, Clarke pumped in 51 points. He got a souvenir out of that performance.

"They had a ball made for me,” Clarke said.

Yet for all of that success in the Southeastern Conference Clarke fled from Arkansas to play one year in Central Indiana. A coaching shift provoked it. Clarke said he believed he just had to leave as the regime changed.

"I felt I did,” Clarke said. "I prayed on it. Butler had a lot of success. I wanted to be around a lot of good guys and coaches I liked.”

The Bulldogs are known for moving the ball around and around with multiple passes and using most players in a balanced offense. But that was then and this is now. Clarke shot from long-range and mid-range, but he shot. Stevens was asked if Clarke has the green light. He blinked, as if trying not to dismiss the query as absurd.

"Neon,” Stevens said. That is apparently a notch up from green. Stevens said his general instructions for Clarke are, "Let it fly.”

Clarke confirmed that. Stevens, he said, told him if he didn't shoot, "he was going to get mad at me.”

It may end up working out that way with freshman Kellen Dunham, too. The 6-6 guard from Pendleton Heights, Indiana shot five-for-10 for 18 points in his debut, nailing three 3-pointers. In his first official college game Dunham looked as if he had been around for years, although he said he could tell the difference between high school and college ball.

"Everyone is so much faster,” he said. "Everyone is so much smarter. Everyone is so much stronger.”

But the 3-point still hurts them just as much.

"I think this team is capable of going on 6-0 and 9-0 runs,” Stevens said. Not so recently. "We didn't have that luxury last year. When we were up four we had to grind to the end.”

Stevens played 14 guys and some of the big dudes did big things, too. Forward Khlye Marshall was unstoppable inside, hitting seven of 11 shots for 14 points. Sophomore Kameron Woods came off the bench to score eight points. One Woods basket was so rim-shaking it will definitely make the season highlight film.

Roosevelt Jones, who had a 6-point, 6-assist, 9-point game, tossed an alley-oop pass high to the left of the rim. Woods swooped in and jammed in a spectacular one-hand dunk that was so impressive it even gathered an exclamation point on the game's play-by-play sheet.

Butler shot 61.5 percent in the first half to Elon's 30.8 percent shooting. But the Phoenix, which has high hopes for league play, regrouped at intermission and rallied to cut that once-18-point margin to four, 47-43. Back-to-back Clarke and Dunham 3-pointers within 17 seconds torched the Phoenix, however.

"I was excited,” said Elon coach Matt Matheny of when the margin was within four. "I was excited we played better. We played in the second half like we aspired to play for 40 minutes.”

Elon, now 0-1, put two players in double figures with forward Ryley Beaumont and guard Austin Hamilton each scoring 13 points.

One game does not a season make, and especially not in the tougher A-10, But if this first look preview of what Butler can be means anything, then other teams must beware. Throw out the old scouting reports..