Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Coming off a tougher-than-expected win over Penn on Wednesday, Temple has one of the toughest Atlantic 10 tasks ahead of them this weekend as they try to beat No. 9 Butler out at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Butler has to find a way to bounce back from a 54-53 loss at La Salle on Wednesday night, but it looks like they’ll be in for a big boost with the return of senior guard Rotnei Clarke (16.3 ppg, .444 3PT%) after a 3-game absence for a neck injury. In his absence, freshman guard Kellen Dunham has stepped up to average more than 13 ppg.
Temple’s Achilles heel continues to be its shooting. Khalif Wyatt (30.2 percent) and Scootie Randall (25.0 percent) are both struggling with their 3-point shooting, and the team’s 30.9 conversion rate from beyond the arc is 273rd in the country, according to KenPom.com.
Butler has been allowing opponents to hit 34 percent of its threes this season, which is slightly below the national average, but it’s still up to the Owls to make their open looks. Their chances of doing so are slightly better thanks to the insertion of Jake O’Brien into the starting line. The 6-10 grad student has started the last three games for Temple and has scored 13.3 ppg, up from his 8.1 ppg average this season, hitting 7-of-15 (46.6 percent) from three in that span.
Thanks to Dave McConnell of Victory Firelight for answering our questions about Saturday’s game (6 p.m., ESPN2):
CoBL: Assuming Rotnei Clarke comes back to face Temple: what sort of dimension has he added to the Bulldogs this year? Aside from 3-point shooting, what has the team missed most in his absence?
VF: A fifth dimension? A Dimension from Outer Space? I’m not sure how to answer that question appropriately. It’s not really just about what Clarke does on the court, but that’s certainly what people see and what matters at the end of the day. But what Clarke has brought to Butler are things that Brad Stevens tries to recruit in all of his players like an incredible work ethic, a humble approach, a level head and leadership. Just to name a few things. Clarke came to the Bulldogs knowing he had just one year of college hoops left in his career, and he has poured everything into it. It has brought this team together and helped give them a sense of urgency with a potential All-American alongside.
On the court, he has given the offense (and Andrew Smith down low) the kind of spacing and opportunity that this system needs to be effective. In his absence, the team has simply missed his presence on the floor and the element of fear he puts on a defense simply by being out there. His return will be galvanizing and his loss made both the fans and the program realize how lucky they are to have him. And how lucky he is to be walking, let alone playing basketball, after that incident in Dayton.
CoBL: The loss at La Salle snapped a 13-game win streak that dated back to November. What were the Bulldogs doing right over that streak, and are there any lurking issues that could cost them in the latter parts of the season?
VF: What were the Bulldogs doing right? Well, pretty much everything. They grew up. They came together as a group. They settled into their roles and created a collective unit that is greater than its individual parts. All of those things are the result of the brilliance of Stevens – that’s what he does. When you have a group that’s as unselfish as these guys, it makes winning a heck of a lot easier. Perhaps the biggest thing that has happened is the emergence of Smith down low.
I, and many others, had thought that Smith was never going to develop into the low post player he had the potential to be. Well, as a senior, Smith has figured out how to be a leader and an energy guy. That led to better play on the floor, better use of his big frame, and the presence Butler needed to have a high-low threat in the offense. In terms of lurking issues, it’s no different than any other team: the Bulldogs have to do everything they can to not have lackadaisical stretches and completely focus on detail. They can get lazy with the ball at times, and given the team composition, they have to win a lot of close games. Which they seem to be pretty comfortable doing.
CoBL: One of the more impressive freshmen in the Atlantic 10 has been Kellen Dunham, who committed to Butler before he’d even started his junior year of high school. Was his arrival highly-anticipated, or has he exceeded all expectations?
VF: Dunham’s arrival was definitely highly-anticipated, and he has lived up to those expectations. No, he hasn’t been perfect–but he doesn’t have to be right now with all the guys around him. Dunham really grew up in the absence of Clarke. He knew he had to step up and fill some of the void offensively and he has done a pretty solid job doing just that. It’s a great situation for him as a freshman with this roster and he will only continue to get better. His shooting numbers haven’t been out-of-this-world, but his efficiency rating is excellent and his ability to use his shot fake has made him a more aggressive offensive player. Dunham could be a huge component if the Bulldogs want to make a run in March.
CoBL: Listening to Brad Stevens speak after games, it’s clear he’s headed for great things–not that they haven’t been accomplished already in his young career. How long do you expect Butler to be able to keep him around, and how does the program maintain this level of success if he should head for one of the “older” powers?
VF: Those are questions that will almost never cease to be asked. At this point, I personally don’t see Stevens leaving for a long time. If ever. Especially considering the move to the A-10, and likely jump to the new conference that is made with the “Catholic 7,” Butler is a program with a national name and national brand that he has taken to that level. Stevens has everything he wants and needs to be successful for a long time and the development of the program both on and off the court will only continue.
I’m not the only one to say this, but the one job that could potentially steer him away from Butler is when Mike Krzyzewski retires at Duke. By most accounts, the two have a strong relationship and Coach K has a strong respect not only for what Stevens has done, but for the way he runs his program and what he stands for. If one of Krzyzewski’s former players doesn’t get that job when he retires, I think Stevens will be tops on their list. Other coaches have left Butler and the program has obviously thrived, but none of those coaches were nearly as synonymous with Butler as Stevens has become.
CoBL: Finally, how do you see this one playing out? Any prediction?
VF: I’d hate to be the Owls right now, I know that. Prepping for Stevens and his team coming off their first loss in two-plus months, walking into another sellout at Hinkle, upon the (likely) return of Clarke. Good luck with that. But with that being said, obviously Butler plays a lot of close games and this one should be another grinder, first-to-60 kind of game.
If somebody not named Khalif Wyatt steps up, Temple could have a shot. You have to think a healthy dose of Rose Jones on defense is in the future of Wyatt, and Jones’ shadow is typically a death sentence for the oppositions’ best player. I frankly just don’t see the Owls being able to come onto the floor at Hinkle under these circumstances and get a win, but it’s not out of the question. I’ll take Butler 65, Temple 54.