Butler begins new era with coaching change
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Brandon Miller understands anything is possible at Butler.
In 2001, he played on the school’s first team to win an NCAA tournament in nearly four decades. Two years later, his late floater beat Mississippi State in the tourney, helping the Bulldogs reach the regional semifinals for the first time in 41 years. Over the next decade, he watched his alma mater win the NIT Preseason Tip-Off, the NCAA regional round three more times, play for two national championships, host ESPN’s College Gameday, have one of the most sought-after coaches in college basketball and become a major part of conference realignment.
No, this is not the same Bulldogs program Miller joined in 2000. It’s a bigger, better program that is now under new management.
“It’s different because I’m the head coach now, and I’m the one making out the practice plan,” Miller said. “The guys have been terrific and the coaching staff has been unbelievable helping to make our guys better.”
That part hasn’t changed.
But things will be very different this season.
Gone is the image of that quaint little school that could. Instead, the Bulldogs have joined the revamped but still powerful Big East, their third conference in three years.
Gone is Brad Stevens, the wonder kid coach who led the Bulldogs to back-to-back Final Fours before taking the Boston Celtics job in July. He’s been replaced by another young coach, the 34-year-old Miller.
Gone are center Andrew Smith and shooting guard Rotnei Clarke, who graduated after being key cogs on last year’s team. Guard Roosevelt Jones also will miss the entire season because of a wrist injury.
Hinkle Fieldhouse is under construction and so are the Bulldogs, who are still trying to get acclimated to this offseason’s big overhaul.
“I think Brandon is little more intense than Brad was and I like the fire he brings,” senior forward Erik Fromm said.
The coaching transition is only part of the equation.
Here are five more things to watch.
REPLACING ROSE: Jones was supposed to be a key cornerstone for the new-look Bulldogs this season. Instead, he’ll try to help from the sideline as the Bulldogs look for answers on the court. Sophomore shooting guard Kellen Dunham should help offset some of the missing points. But Miller and the Bulldogs will have to replace Jones’ court savvy, ability to break down defenders, pass and defend with a committee of players, many of whom have not yet had major roles with the Bulldogs.
CONFERENCE CALL: Butler might still be America’s biggest midmajor if not for Gonzaga’s rise to the No. 1 spot and Wichita State’s shocking run to the Final Four, both of which happened last season. Or if the school’s administration hadn’t decided over the past 18 months that the Bulldogs had outgrown the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10. When the revised Big East came calling, Butler, a big catch, jumped at the opportunity to join a power league that provides more money and more exposure. What’s unclear is how competitive Butler will be in the new league this season, given all the changes and the loss of Jones.
MILLER TIME: Miller’s rapid ascension has been remarkable. Two years ago, he left college coaching. Last season, he returned as a special assistant to Illinois coach John Groce. In April, Butler brought back Miller as a full-time assistant to replace Matthew Graves and in July, without coaching a game in his most recent return to his alma mater, Miller was promoted again. At age 34, he’s one of college basketball’s youngest head coaches.
FINDING PIECES: Beyond Dunham and forward Khyle Marshall, the Bulldogs have few cornerstones. Fromm and lanky 6-foot-9 junior Kameron Woods should play bigger roles this season and point guard Alex Barlow is back, too. But to be competitive, Butler needs others to help out including a strong freshman class that includes 6-10 Nolan Berry and 6-4 Elijah Brown, the son of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown.
THE BLUES: Butler’s fans have been blue since their beloved live mascot, 9-year-old Blue II, died from congestive heart failure this summer. Butler Blue III, his hand-picked successor, officially took over in March. The soon-to-be 2-year-old English bulldog may be just as adorable as Blue II, though it will take time to see how Butler Blue III deals with players, fans and coaches — or if he’ll make any Final Four trips.