TOM DAVIS: Year One with LaVall Jordan has been a model in toughness, resiliency for Butler basketball
It was one year ago Tuesday that LaVall Jordan returned to his alma mater to lead the Butler University men’s basketball program and in very large part it has been yet another seamless transition for the tradition-rich program.
“Thankful for the opportunity to come back,” Jordan said during this past season. “It was very special. Unique. But as you get into this, what we’re in this for, as mentors and teachers, the relationships, you love being around these guys. Every day at practice, this group, they came and they embraced and they were willing to learn.”
The Bulldogs had some phenomenal wins (Ohio State, Villanova, and in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments) and some disappointing losses (getting smoked in the Crossroads Classic by Purdue, blowing an 11-point lead at home to Seton Hall, and a double-overtime loss at St. John’s). However, in retrospect Butler won 21 games and nearly advanced to the Sweet 16, so Jordan’s first year was unequivocally a positive one.
Here is a look at some of the top things (in no particular order) that occurred within the program during his first 12 months on the job.
Better late than never
Jordan spoke at length during the season about how his team was filled with “fighters” and the Bulldogs demonstrated that fortitude on multiple occasions.
“What this team has shown is a resiliency,” Jordan said, “whether we’re making or missing shots and that’s something that’s, I think, a character piece to that in terms of who our guys are.”
Being resilient is also apparently a “character piece” to who the Butler coaches are.
The Bulldog coaches missed on a number of recruits in the initial signing period but closed the 2018 recruiting class with fervor.
Jordan landed Duke transfer Jordan Tucker (6-foot-7, forward) mid-season and he’ll suit up for the Bulldogs in late December and this spring was very productive, as well.
The Bulldogs signed freshman forward Bryce Golden in May, who had originally signed with Pitt, and a proven Division I forward in Milwaukee transfer Bryce Nze.
Golden and Tucker will be joined by Michigan high school athlete Markese Hastings, who signed in November for the 2018-19 season.
Also committing to the Bulldogs this spring was New Jersey prep guard Khalif Battle, who will join Nze and Carmel High School forward John Michael Mulloy in the 2019 recruiting class.
A Buckeye beating
First-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann knew before the opening tip that he was going to be uncomfortable leading the Buckeyes against his former squad in the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore. in November. And he was right.
Ohio State, which ultimately won 25 games and challenged for the Big Ten regular-season championship, showed its potential for nearly 37 minutes as it built a 15-point lead with just 3:46 remaining.
However, the Bulldogs showed the toughness that has enveloped this program for nearly three decades and they rallied for a 67-66 win in overtime.
“I love this group (and) what we’ve become,” Jordan said later in the season. “I think it’s a group of fighters. That’s what will define us for the rest of time. Team 120 of Butler basketball history is a group of fighters. We’ve been down, we’ve come back, and we’ve won and continued to fight. So we’ve had those moments to grow from, learn from.
“One of the things that I’m proud of with this group is it hasn’t gone our way a lot and we’ve had to fight our way back, claw our way back, and still figure out a way to get it done.”
A veteran’s embrace
Butler senior captains had signed on to play for former Butler coach Brandon Miller, ended up being handed Chris Holtmann out of necessity, only to finish their careers under Jordan.
The toughest task handled by those three coaches was without a doubt Jordan’s, who had to get a pair of veterans to buy into him and he didn’t waste a moment of time in doing so.
“I leaned on Tyler a lot because he was one of the guys that I knew the best, having recruited him when we were at Michigan,” Jordan said of his transition to the program. “So the next call, after (Butler athletic director Barry Collier) called me and I accepted the job quickly, was to call Tyler because I still had his number and to tell him we’re going to have to lock arms and do this together; that I wasn’t the guy to come in and think I knew everything.
“Obviously I know Butler, but I didn’t know the guys in the locker room that well and he did. So we had a number of conversations upon our arrival just about the team, about the guys, about how things were done with coach Holtmann and what they were used to because obviously, we all have different styles. So he’s been a tremendous arm of leadership for myself and for his teammates.”
The transition was aided by the team having a 10-day foreign trip to Spain in August. But a large amount of credit has to be given to those two seniors AND Jordan for this program not skipping a beat through its sixth coaching change in the past two decades.
“I’m proud of our seniors for their leadership to get us to this point,” Jordan said late in the season. “I think they’ve grown a ton. Our entire team has grown and learned a ton in our season, along the journey.”
There were a lot of new aspects to the Bulldog program this past season, including its point guard.
Jordan had to mentor freshman Aaron Thompson through his transition from high school to the Big East Conference and he didn’t take it easy on the youngster.
Jordan played Thompson 24 minutes in the season-opener off the bench but by game four he was starting him and did so for the remainder of the season.
“I love coaching Aaron Thompson,” Jordan said early in the season. “He is smart as a whip. He’s a great teammate, the locker room loves him.”
Thompson never developed into a formidable shooting threat (he made just two 3-pointers all season) but what he did do, he did well.
Thompson handled the ball (just 58 turnovers in nearly 845 minutes of action) and he ran the Bulldog offense well (118 assists), particularly for a guy in his first season at this level.
Down go the champs!
Without question, Villanova is not only the king of the Big East but one could make the argument that the Wildcats have become the top program in the entire sport over the past few years.
Villanova has a pair of national championships in the past three seasons but in the regular season – for whatever reason – Butler has fared well against the Wildcats.
Butler has beaten Villanova three of the past four times, including a 101-93 win in Indianapolis in December.
“They have given us trouble,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a teleconference leading up to the game. “A lot of trouble.”
Butler redshirt junior guard Paul Jorgensen buried 8 of 13 shots, including a pair of loooong 3-pointers, and finished with 23 points to fuel the upset win.
“We’re a group of tough guys that like to get the job done,” Bulldog guard Kamar Baldwin said later in the season in regards to his team. “No matter how we do it, we’re going to get it done. Like our motto, we’re ‘Gritty, not pretty.’ So we’re ready to fight and ready to work hard.”
Jordan’s team wasn’t always successful as it finished 9-9 within the Big East. However, what Butler did do was learn from losses.
The Bulldogs dropped games to Creighton (85-74) and Providence (70-60) early in league play, only to resolve those issues and gain victories in the re-matches.
“I’ve been proud of this group throughout this entire journey for their mindset,” Jordan said of his team late in the season. “It’s been a growth mindset. I think there’s humility about them, where they want to learn. They don’t think they know it all. So it’s allowed us, from day one, to just teach. That’s been the most fun part has just been teaching and there have been questions along the way.”
No rebounding win was more meaningful, however than when Jordan’s group knocked off Seton Hall in the opening round of the Big East Tournament after losing twice to the Pirates during the regular season.
Just five days after falling 77-70 in Newark, the Bulldogs rallied from nine points down in the second half (seven in the final 5:54) to win 75-74 at Madison Square Garden.
“We knew what it was going to take,” Jordan said following that win. “It wasn’t a game of perfect but we didn’t hang our heads when things didn’t go our way. We were down and we just fought back and battled back.
“We’ve seen that out of this group before. We knew we had it in us and it was great to see it come out at this moment.”
One of the more pleasant surprises of the early season was the play of redshirt sophomore Sean McDermott. In a three-game stretch against Maryland, Furman, and Texas, the 6-foot-6 athlete was averaging 15 points per game but suffered an ankle injury in the PK80 event.
After sitting out four games, McDermott returned to the court but came off the bench in the ensuing 17 games.
Following a three-game losing streak in February, Jordan made the switch and moved McDermott back into the starting lineup and brought Jorgensen off of the bench for the remainder of the season.
Both players performed well in those roles.
“Sean had a terrific offseason,” Jordan said of the lineup move. “I thought he prepared himself well to have a big role this year. Defensively he’s got length and he’s got an IQ.”
Over the final eight games, McDermott averaged five rebounds per game, while Jorgensen responded to the change by scoring 46 points in those initial three games.
Both Martin and Wideman not only performed well on the basketball court but they also graduated last month, as well.
In the previous two seasons, the Bulldog program had registered a perfect 100 percent in terms of its GSR (Graduation Success Rate) and its APR (Academic Progress Rate) had held steady at 974. However, those numbers dipped to 82 percent and 968 this past March when the latest statistics were released.
“Myself and the other older guys on the team that have already been there,” Wideman said this past spring, “we just had to show (the new coaches) the way that Butler was run for the most part as far as academics and athletics.
“Everybody in the program does a good job making sure everything stays consistent from the (athletic director) down to the academic advisor. Everybody does a good job keeping everybody in line.”
You smell bacon?
In its opening game of the NCAA Tournament, Butler had to figure out how to deal successfully with a very athletic and long Arkansas squad.
Jordan and the rest of the Bulldog coaches did so just fine.
The Bulldogs came out roaring and led by 19 points less than seven minutes into the game.
“Give them credit,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said afterward. “Their all-conference guys, they stepped up and made big, big plays.”
Butler not only handled the Razorbacks’ athleticism well, the Bulldogs annihilated Arkansas in terms of effort and physicality, as it outrebounded Arkansas 45-25.
“It was all about response,” Jordan said of the win. “I’m really proud of our seniors for stepping up, owning our huddles and making plays when we needed them. So we just talked about survive and advance.”
The victory was a model in toughness, execution, and even resiliency (Arkansas stormed back to take the lead late in the first half). Ironically, those are the same traits that have permeated Jordan’s initial year with the Bulldog program.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.
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