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December 16, 2012
Extreme Makeover
The New Butler Offense

by John Gasaway


Take a bow, conventional wisdom. Coming into this season, you said Butler would be really good because the only thing this weak-on-offense team lacked in 2011-12 -- perimeter shooting -- would now be supplied by Arkansas transfer and Oklahoma high school scoring legend Rotnei Clarke.

That is precisely what has come to pass. Clarke is indeed the Bulldogs' featured scorer, and he's hitting 45 percent of his threes. And the Bulldogs as a team over their last three games -- against IUPUI, Northwestern, and Indiana -- have drained 46 percent of their attempts from out there, a burst of marksmanship that can only be termed John Groce-like. (Butler can certainly appreciate that term of approbation.)

That three-point shooting, helped along by a dominant display on the offensive glass, proved to be the difference on Saturday, as the Bulldogs edged the No. 1-ranked and previously unbeaten Hoosiers 88-86, in an overtime thriller played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. On an afternoon when his players sent Indiana to the line no fewer than 38 times, Stevens needed his team to make every last one of those 11 threes (on 24 attempts). Think of it this way, if Butler goes "just" 10-of-23 from beyond the arc, they lose.

Be honest. With 2:12 left in OT, IU up 84-80, and Andrew Smith, Roosevelt Jones, and Erik Fromm all having fouled out, you didn't think Stevens was going to win this game, did you? Neither did I. But threes by Clarke and Chase Stigall gave Butler an 86-84 lead with 58 seconds remaining. After Cody Zeller hit a jumper, it remained only for Alex Barlow to record his game-winning heroics for the Bulldogs. (Still another thing conventional wisdom could have seen coming, right?)

Observers were quick to hail Stevens' genius on the final play -- and, don't worry, I'll get to Stevens' genius in a second -- but putting the ball in Barlow's hands at the end of overtime was more a function of simply who was left on the floor than any "Don't get caught watching the paint dry" brand of inspiration in the huddle. Clarke is Clarke, but if you have one chance and 19 seconds to win a game you're probably not going to give the ball to a guy generously listed at 6-0 who's been guarded all game by Victor Oladipo.

Barlow had the option to kick it to the corner if the three was open, but he read the play correctly, backed down Jordan Hulls, and bounced in the game-winner from the lane. (Indiana fans with memories of the inconsistent defense played by their Hoosiers in recent seasons will not cherish the visual memory of Hulls not even getting a hand up on Barlow's shot.)

It's very natural for us to claim to see the expertise of coaches on display in a game's decisive moment: Stevens was lauded for giving the ball to Barlow in the final seconds against the No. 1 team in the country. (Barlow's game-winner brought his scoring total to 18 points. Not for the game, mind you. For the entire season.) And, sure enough, Tom Crean was likewise criticized for taking Zeller off the floor for the final defensive possession. The paradox of coaching, however, is that often the genuine expertise that's on display makes its appearance in ways that don't necessarily turn out to be decisive.

Which brings me back to Brad Stevens and Jordan Hulls. No one in their right mind is going to praise Butler's defense after a 76-possession game where Indiana scored 86 points. (Though, incredibly, scoring 1.13 points per trip does represent a "down" game for this IU offense.) Likewise, no one at all in any kind of mind is ever going to start a sentence with "Rotnei Clarke's defense," Clarke being to Butler roughly what Hulls is to Indiana -- an unconscious three-point shooter who also happens to be a defensive liability.

But did anyone else notice that this marked the first game since February where Hulls did not make a single three-point shot? As a team Butler appeared to be perfectly willing to switch on any and every IU screen -- except on ones set for Hulls. Clarke followed Hulls everywhere and never helped a teammate who was defending the ball. He just stuck to Hulls. It looked like a box-and-one without the box.

In one sense, limiting Hulls didn't really matter. (Again, see above, "sent Indiana to the line no fewer than 38 times.") But the specter of Butler playing one of the best teams in the country and taking away at least one hitherto dependable and very important facet of their performance is beginning to look really familiar to me. By this point I should probably just expect it.

So, yes, even after a 22-15 season in 2011-12, it turns out Stevens is still Stevens. And, with a revamped capacity on offense at his disposal, that's bad news for 15 other Atlantic 10 teams. In the span of a few months Butler's gone from having one of the worst offenses in the Horizon League to having one of the best offenses in the A-10. It's early, of course, but to this point in the season what we've seen from the Bulldogs on that side of the ball has been a day-and-night transformation. One key part of that transformation has surprised me, and to explain why I need to back up for a moment.

In May of 2010 I sat in Stevens' office in Hinkle Fieldhouse discussing an amazing season that had ended with Gordon Hayward's heave against Duke in the national championship game. Way, way down my list of topics was offensive rebounding. I'm a fan of offensive boards, and -- at that time, at least on paper -- it seemed to me that Stevens was not. This was Brad Stevens I was talking to, so I figured there was a good chance I was wrong to like offensive rebounds, and I asked him about it. "It's not like we consciously say 'Don't go after offensive rebounds' to the players," the coach told me that day.

That's certainly clear enough now: Butler is fantastic on the offensive glass. Just ask Indiana. Against an undefeated Big Ten team ranked No. 1 in the nation, the Bulldogs pulled down an amazing 49 percent of their misses. Between Smith, Khyle Marshall, and Fromm, Stevens has the luxury of being able to throw a trio of excellent offensive rebounders at opposing teams. This is not your Matt Howard-era Butler offense. This is something closer to what Jamie Dixon likes to do at Pittsburgh.

That being said, don't hand this year's A-10 title to Butler just yet. There's another new arrival in that league called Virginia Commonwealth, and the Rams are going to be very tough to beat. It's exceedingly unlikely that the gravitational pulls exerted by conference realignment on the one hand and professional advancement on the other will allow a Brad Stevens-Shaka Smart rivalry to develop. That's too bad, because conventional wisdom would be quick to brand such a rivalry as really fun to watch. And, once again, the conventional wisdom would be exactly right.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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