Hinkle is one of the grand old dames of sports buildings in our country. Built in 1928, it’s stood the test of time. Over the last 15 years, Butler basketball has matched its arena. The play has been the stuff of legends, with back-to-back national championship game appearances, 10 trips to the NCAA tourney in 16 years, only missing post-season play of any form twice since 1997.
Butler basketball is undergoing an upgrade. Not because of need, but simply because of a desire to compete at the highest level possible.
Joined at the hip will be the second renovation to Hinkle Fieldhouse in the last 25 years and the first move for Butler to a new league since the Midwestern City Conference was formed in 1979.
After establishing a national-level identity as a member of the Horizon League, Butler took the opportunity to rejoin former league rivals Dayton, Xavier, LaSalle, St. Louis, and Duquesne and to reconnect with 2011 Final Four opponent VCU in the newly upgraded A-10. Combine that with a still murderous non-conference schedule, and the Butler strength of schedule goes from rugged to maniacal.
Butler certainly has the pedigree to make such a move, not to mention largely the same coaching staff in place from those tile game runs, led by Brad Stevens. From a depth and talent standpoint, Butler’s roster matches up well with other teams thought to have a chance at the A-10 championship.
The only question mark for the ‘Dogs is at the point guard spot. With the dismissal of Chrishawn Hopkins from Butler, and his subsequent transfer to former Horizon League rival Wright State, a glaring need was created at the point guard spot. It was going to be tough enough to replace the leadership of Ronald Nored. It appeared Hopkins was the one player on the roster who could at least play the role of creator to try and fill Nored’s shoes.
Now, that responsibility falls on a new face, but one of the Bulldogs’ most experienced hands. Rotnei Clarke, waiting to play after sitting out last year’s transfer from Arkansas, will see the ball much more in his hands than originally planned for his lone year at Butler. Clarke brings with him a gym rat’s mentality and range from anywhere in the building, but will be asked to play a point guard role he only played briefly his last season in Fayetteville.
Clarke led the Bulldogs in both minutes played and points scored in Butler’s final exhibition win over UIndy, tallying 18 points in 34 minutes on the floor. However, the ‘Dogs had just seven assists on 18 field goals in the game, and turned the ball over 17 times.
Teams are rarely at their best in these exhibition games, and Clarke even expected to see some rust in his first competitive games in two years in wins over Marian and the Greyhounds. There will be some on the job training at this spot, and for this team.
Of course, the schedule doesn’t exactly jive with easy chances to learn on the job for Butler. After opening with Elon on Saturday, the Bulldogs kept a non-conference date with Xavier next Tuesday. Then, it’s off to Maui for anything but rest and relaxation, opening with Marquette, followed by North Carolina or Mississippi State the next day. Texas, USC, or Illinois could be awaiting in the tournament’s final day. Northwestern, Indiana, Vandy, and Gonzaga all join A-10 showdowns for the Bulldogs in 2012-13.
If the first two games are any indication, expect the blueprint from last year’s 22-win season to remain in tact for this season. Remain tenacious on defense, and hope to find the basket enough on offense to win games. Opponents averaged 60 points per game last year against Butler. The Bulldogs managed just 64 a ballgame. If Clarke can find that balance of distributing to teammates, and knowing when to call his own number, and if Kellen Dunham can make the transition from high school standout to contributing freshman, the offensive prowess of this team will improve.
The challenge of new opponents and destinations appeals to head coach Brad Stevens. “I liken this to my last year as a player at DePauw,” Stevens said on Monday morning. “In my last year, we switched leagues and began to play in places like Memphis, and Atlanta, and San Antonio. For these guys, it’s a chance to get out of that ‘Midwest bubble,” to play against different styles of teams. It’s also a chance to play in places like New York City, Philly, and DC. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s a step up for Butler, for sure. While Butler will take some time to adjust to several different styles of play, there will be some catching up to do going the other direction. Butler plays a brand of basketball that is not often duplicated. It takes a special brand of athlete to play the ‘Butler Way,’ and it’s proven over the years to be a difficult style to beat.
While there will be a lot of new faces and teams to see for the Bulldog faithful this season, those wearing the Butler blue and white will largely be the same. The building that some of you have been to for decades will be the same. Just with some minor changes.
Here’s also a quick public service announcement for you: when going to and from Hinkle this season, the entrance you came in from could be blocked off when you leave. That’s what happened to me on Monday. No worries, I know my way around the place. And, by the end of the season, I expect the Bulldogs to know their way around the Atlantic 10. If the ‘Dogs can find 20 wins against one of the best schedules in the country, they’ll find their way to the NCAA tournament. And we all know that the Bulldogs know their way around that place as well.