Coach Matta being hired by Butler shocked the world, but how did his first few months on the job go?
It’s been two months since Butler filled their last scholarship spot. Before the team heads off to their Summer tour across the Mediterranean, I think we should revisit this offseason and see how it went for the newly rehired head coach, Thad Matta.
Former Coach LaVall Jordan was fired on April 1st in a move, which just felt so bizarrely timed. It quickly came out that Butler saved quite a bit on Jordan’s contract due to waiting until April, which explained a lot. At this point, I was down on the program. It was a move I still question, not because of results but because of timing. Those assistants were put in a very rough position, and for Butler, it didn’t seem like the options were plentiful with a lot of the highly touted up-and-coming coaches already being hired. It seemed like a decision based on greed when there was a better way. By all accounts, Coach Jordan is a great person who was let off on the wrong foot. Where from a results perspective the move was just, I wish the University handled it better.
I had no idea who Butler was looking at to fill the head coaching vacancy. There were rumors all across social media, none of which I paid any mind to. I was just going to hold judgment on any prospective hire until it happened. I assumed this process would take about a week, and I was willing to wait for the right guy. Little did I know that the right guy ended up walking through those doors mere days later.
Thad Matta was hired on April 3rd, in a move that stunned the collective college basketball world. Before Matta was hired, Bryce Golden and Simas Lukosius had entered the transfer portal, and it looked as if Jayden Taylor would follow in their footsteps. With Matta being hired pretty late in the transfer portal cycle, as many top guys had already taken official visits, I was unsure how Butler would be able to assemble a roster after so many players moved on.
Butler has hired Thad Matta as its head coach.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) April 3, 2022
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) April 3, 2022
The first win of the Butler offseason was when Taylor announced that he officially was returning. At this point, all signs were optimistic that this offseason would head in the right direction. Having a well-respected coach like Matta and bringing back a freshmen talent like Taylor is always a good sign. Taylor did struggle at times in Big East play, but expecting a freshman not to have his growing pains would be absolute insanity. Even Paolo Banchero, the #1 overall pick, had some rough conference games.
A day later, three-star and Butler’s lone commit of the 2022 class, Connor Turnbull announced he was reopening his recruitment to weigh all possible options. Not all that surprising. With Dennis Gates at Missouri, one of those young and up-and-coming coaches, seemingly after him, I figured he could leave. Just another domino in what I thought was going to be many more. How foolish I was.
A couple of days later, less than a week after Matta was officially hired, Ali Ali announced his commitment to Butler. Ali was a very solid player on an Akron team that almost upset UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, a versatile 6’8” wing who shot 40% from three is a good addition for any team. Ali led a balanced Zips scoring attack with 13.9PPG, including a breakout game on New Year’s Day where he scored 32 against a very solid Buffalo team. Getting a player like Ali after less than a week on the job was a massive win for Butler, but work was far from done.
Then on April 14th, Simas Lukosius announced that he would be returning to Butler. There was some speculation that he would be returning, as in the following days there was never a list of teams that reached out to him, he was seen on campus multiple times during this run and there were rumors he was practicing with the team before this announcement, nonetheless, it was a massive sigh of relief for the Bulldogs.
In case you aren’t following Simas over on IG…. pic.twitter.com/tg3n7k4qfO
— Butler Basketball (@ButlerMBB) April 14, 2022
On paper, a freshman who averaged under 7PPG returning to school isn’t huge news. But, when you factor in that he’s a freshman guard who came to the U.S. from Lithuania very late in the offseason, patience was key. Simas consistently showed flashes and showed up in big moments, including 14 points in a home win over Marquette, 19 in a road win over DePaul, including hitting the game-winning three (totally no push off IMO), and hitting four clutch free throws in the early season win at Oklahoma where Fran Fraschilla famously declared “he’s Lithuanian, I got a feeling he’s a good free-throw shooter,” (considering he shot 89% from the charity stripe during the season, Fran was right). All of this was before Simas erupted for 27 points and 7 boards in a huge Big East Tournament win over Xavier.
This might be my favorite announcer trope. Either this or “they don’t need a three here.” I’m still waiting for the day when a European player can’t shoot free throws. Regardless #FranWasRight pic.twitter.com/hXJcmTR3OK
— MDtheDream (@MDtheDream) July 6, 2022
Yeah, this one was big. With Simas back in the fold, it meant that Thad had brought back just about everyone from last year’s team, keeping two key pieces for future seasons. In the modern age of CBB where players constantly transfer after a coach is fired, being able to keep your key building blocks is almost unheard of. It showed that they were building towards something, but this roster still had a couple of holes to fill.
April 20th hits and Connor Turnbull reaffirms his commitment to Butler. Turnbull profiles more as a development piece this year, he’s a freshman who has a wide array of skills, just will probably take some time to develop. He’s got range out to the three-point line and is a solid shot-blocker inside. In his senior year of high school, Turnbull averaged 23.5PPG and 12.7RPG on 60% from the field and 39% from three. Pretty good if you ask me. I’m fully confident he will be a good college player, I just don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on a freshman.
A little under a week passes and not much has happened. The ‘Dogs were listed in Rob Phinisee’s top two before he committed to Wes Miller and Cincinnati. There were a couple of guys the ‘Dogs had on campus at this time, one of which was Jalen Thomas.
On April 27th, the day finals started, Thomas announces he has committed to Butler. Now, I watched a ton of Georgia State games last year. That’s a team I liked. They played a very high-pressure style and had good guards and a defensive anchor who made everything possible. That anchor was Thomas. This enabled them to go on a huge run late in the season, peaking with a Sun Belt Tournament Championship (one that I predicted, no need to brag though).
Mini rant: Georgia State got screwed by the committee. This team had awful injuries early in the season, something the committee is supposed to factor in, (and ALWAYS does for Syracuse), and once fully healthy was legit. In the span from February 5th to Selection Sunday, Georgia State ranked 71st nationally in adjusted efficiency and 23rd in adjusted defensive efficiency according to barttorvik.com. This overall efficiency is ahead of teams like Michigan State, USC, Wyoming, Iowa State, and Marquette, all at-large selections, some of which won games in the tournament. If this sounds like a 16 seed to you, I guess we’re gonna have to agree to disagree. This was a team that I was hyping up to end the reign of terror that Coach K had us all trapped in, in a just 3-14 matchup but instead the committee decided to screw all of us out of what would’ve been a glorious moment. Ok, let’s get back on track now.
Thomas finished fourth in the Sun Belt in blocks, just behind two other high-profile transfers in Norchad Omier and Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu (I copy-pasted his name FYI). Thomas is a highly efficient shot-blocking big, exactly the piece that a team with good young guards needs. Someone who takes up space makes life much harder for opponents and easier for his teammates. Thomas was a perfect fit.
Imagine being an opposing team and seeing Manny Bates (6’11) exit only to see Jalen Thomas (6’10/6’11) enter…
While Manny is on another level (2.7 BPG), Jalen is no slouch (1.5 BPG). Dare I say Butler has rim protection?
— Butler Basketball Guru (@ButlerGuru) May 20, 2022
At this point, Butler had two scholarships left. The roster is shaping up, but if the Bulldogs wanted to compete on a national scale next year, they needed to make a splash.
On May 3rd it comes out that Manny Bates is announcing his college decision the following day, and it’s down to Butler, Iowa State, and Georgetown. There was some buzz he was transferring to Georgetown last season, before deciding to return to NC State. I’ve also learned not to doubt T.J. Otzelberger in the transfer portal (who would soon land Osun Osuniyyi), but the tea leaves read Butler, so there was some reasonable optimism for this announcement.
Now, on campus, it’s move-out season. I’m helping all my roommates move out and packing up my stuff, so I can’t get ahead on trying to dig a little deeper into this. I just wait it out. The next day, I’m sitting in the back of a car that is en route for a nine-hour trek, and while I get carsick looking at my phone too much, I’m looking for any update on Bates.
I’ve grown up a Hoya, been going to games for as long as I can remember and I’m now going to Butler, so I’m all the way in on this news. It seems to be leaning toward Butler, but recruits have done much crazier. Getting too invested in transfer portal season is a mistake I make every single year, and yet here we are, more worried about where Manny Bates goes to a school than I am getting home, the things I do for college hoops. Then this tweet from recruiting expert Andrew Slater drops.
— ℯ ℯ (@Andrew__Slater) May 4, 2022
BOOM! It’s a wrap. Now, for those of you who may not be in “the know” that is former Marquette Golden Eagle and six-time NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler. Since his last name is Butler, that’s the hint. It’s very subtle I know, but I expect my readers are amongst the brightest in the world and figured out the link before I so eloquently explained it.
To put it lightly, this is massive for Butler. The Field of 68 recently ranked Bates as the 20th most impact transfer (a number I would argue is too low, with absolutely no bias attached). Pretty much as soon as I settled in, I began going all-in on Manny Bates highlights/game tape and got ready to write about what I believe makes Manny Bates a truly special addition. He’s stepping onto campus as arguably the best shot-blocker in program history and brings a veteran, physical interior presence the program has been missing for the last few years.
Next up, numbers 16-20 on our list of impact transfers. Per @RobDauster, Tristan Newton is “15 spots too low”
— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) June 28, 2022
As a freshman, Bates finished top 10 (#7) in the NCAA in blocks per game for the 2019-20 season, which is pretty unheard of. In the seasons since three freshmen have joined Bates, those guys being #2 overall picks Evan Mobley and Chet Holmgren and #6 pick Onyeka Okungwu, who finished behind Bates that season. Some pretty solid company if you ask me.
The next season Bates finished #11 nationally in blocks per game, which is just a horrific drop-off if you ask me (sarcasm ftw). Don’t worry though, Bates led the ACC in blocks this season too, was ACC All-Defensive first team, and shot 64% from the field, good for fourth in the conference. Sports-Reference lists Bates as having the 24th highest block percentage since 2009-10 (minimum 50 games), which is the highest of any active player. So, yeah it’s pretty safe to say Manny Bates is an elite shot blocker and will be a tremendous asset, but I wrote a whole separate article about this, so I hope you already knew that.
A successful offseason no doubt, but the Bulldogs still had one more scholarship that they could fill. With the interest shown in Rob Phinisee, it seemed like the ‘Dogs were looking for another guard, one who could step in as a team leader and show these young guns how to run a team. That’s exactly what the ‘Dogs got in Purdue transfer Eric Hunter Jr.
Hunter is an elite defender, making the Big Ten All-Defensive team last year, while also shooting 40% from three. “Three and D” have become a buzzword/phrase around the NBA Draft season, one that is frequently overused, but it’s a very accurate description of Hunter’s game. He was that anchor those Purdue teams needed over the last couple of seasons. He played in just about every game, missing only four games in four years, all coming at the beginning of the 2020-21 season. In those four games he missed, two of Purdue’s performances rated as their second and fourth worst performances of the year according to barttorvik.com. This goes to show you that Hunter’s effectiveness isn’t fully reflected by the box score. Hunter is a perfect addition to this Butler team, as he is that selfless leader who will grind on both ends and just does all the things you can’t teach.
Overall, I don’t think there’s a negative thing I can say about this phase of the offseason. It easily surmounted all reasonable expectations that any fan could’ve had. Matta was brought in relatively late in the transfer cycle and brought in four guys who will all play solid minutes for this team. I’m looking forward to seeing how they gel together.
Not many teams keep every single non-senior after a coach departs. Not many coaches would be able to hit the portal hard after starting weeks behind everyone else. Yet, that’s exactly what happened for the Butler Bulldogs. I’m not someone who typically is the most optimistic guy going, but it’s hard to say this part of the offseason was anything other than a resounding success.