The last of the five guiding principles to the Butler Way is thankfulness, and on Sunday, several Bulldogs were grateful for a rest. They had been duly and equally humbled by the start to their first season in the Big East. So while some players took part in a full-scale practice and raced up and down the floor as usual, the key rotation contributors idled. Minutes had accumulated across three overtime games in their new conference, like hundreds of tiny sandbags hanging from their legs. And this didn’t even consider the weight on their shoulders.
Butler had played four Big East games to that point. It had played four overtimes, total, in those games. It had not emerged with a win in any of them. The Bulldogs set course two days later for one of the least likely locations in which to find salvation, league-leading Creighton, and this time left lamenting the lack of an extended workload. Butler lost again, 88-60, easily its worst defeat of the year, to fall to 0-5 in the Big East.
"It's the first game where I looked up and saw our guys just didn't have it," Bulldogs coach Brandon Miller told reporters after the game.
In this, there was more profound disappointment than one might expect. The truly, deeply maddening part about Butler's start? In a conversation with SI.com before the debacle at Creighton, Miller emphatically believed that what his team did in parts of its 0-4 swoon actually validated the 10 wins it amassed in the non-conference portion of the schedule that also included a two-point loss to Oklahoma State and yet another overtime defeat to LSU.
“To be honest, in a couple games, we’ve played better in our 0-4 stretch than we played in our 10-2 stretch,” Miller told SI.com in a phone interview Monday. “We played a really good game versus Villanova at home. We had a lot of positive possessions. And we’ve also played in some games where we haven’t played so great. But I do think during the 10-2 stretch, it’s probably not as good as it seems. And during the 0-4 stretch it’s not as bad as it seems. It’s somewhere in the middle. I do think our guys are playing good basketball, albeit we’re making a few too many mistakes in the close games.”
Somewhere in the middle would be preferable to the unfamiliar cool felt while having your cheeks pressed to the cellar floor. At 0-5, Butler is technically in sole possession of last place in the Big East, strapped with one more conference defeat than St. John’s. From a strictly basketball standpoint, Miller is concerned with his team's lack of defensive consistency, and surrendering 55.6 percent shooting to the Bluejays on Tuesday night did not allay that.
But this was Butler's first true face plant. After playing 10 games decided in an extra session or by less than seven points, including overtime losses to Villanova, DePaul (two OTs) and Georgetown on its Big East ledger, it was perhaps most critically important to reinforce the minds and confidence of players in a program accustomed to success and making the plays necessary to win such coin-flip games.
“We talked about the ultimate goal is playing our best basketball at the end of the season,” Miller said. “And we know at the same time, when the result isn’t what you want it to be, you don’t feel great. Losing is not a fun thing. There’s a pain in your side, a pain that you feel when you lose a basketball game. We think our locker room is filled with guys who play for the right reasons, they play the right way. And we haven’t been rewarded with the result that we want. At the same time we have to remember the big picture and what the ultimate goal is.”
He’ll start with the defense anyway. Butler is last in conference play in field goal percentage defense, now allowing opponents to shoot 51.9 percent from the floor. Even more startling: Those five opponents shot 58.3 percent on two-point attempts. In 36 games a year ago, Bulldogs opponents shot 41.6 percent overall and 45.3 percent from inside the arc.
It’s difficult to discern the reason for the spike. Andrew Smith was a towering inside presence a year ago, but he averaged just a half-block per game and 6-foot-9 junior Kameron Woods is at 1.2 per game this season. It may be that the attention to detail simply has waned, or at least that’s what Miller suggests.
“We’re making too many mistakes on the defensive end,” said Miller, who is in his first season after taking over for the departed Brad Stevens. “It’s not one play that’s getting us, it’s not just one possession. We’re making multiple mistakes on multiple possessions. Knowing that we’re not going to play perfect, we can’t be making as many mistakes as we’re making right now. Our room for error is very small, we know that.”
Ranking 114th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (107.3 points per 100 possessions) is no way to compensate. Kellen Dunham is producing (18.4 points per game) albeit at a relatively uneven pace (39.5 percent shooting). It may be depth of scoring that is the issue. Butler had three double-digit scorers and five players averaging 9.5 points or more last year; it has just two double-digit producers so far, Dunham and Khyle Marshall (15.6), while outlets like Kameron Woods (8.7), Erik Fromm (7.3) and Alex Barlow (6.3) haven't provided quite enough oomph.
Miller shrugged off a suggestion that players had not yet adjusted to the step up in competition with Butler's move from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East, which ranks third in conference RPI and where teams are punished more often for off-nights. But Miller insists his player’s approach has been satisfactory and said they had a “terrific” practice -- featuring the entire squad -- Monday before traveling to Omaha to face Creighton. There was no reflecting on the past at the end of the workout. Miller left his team with a message centered on the game plan for the Bluejays, how Butler would attack Doug McDermott and Co., how the Bulldogs would play moving forward.
“(Monday’s) message was about tomorrow night’s game,” Miller said as the team headed out. “That’s where our guys’ minds are right now. I think that’s a good thing.”