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Jimmy Butler’s Steep Improvement a Pleasant Surprise for Marquette

Not much was known about head coach Buzz Williams’ first recruiting class as head coach of the Marquette Golden Eagles.  Recruited by Tom Crean, freshman Chris Otule and sophomore Joe Fulce were nice additions but not expected to take over as an overpowering recruiting class.  Williams wound up making his first splash in the recruiting process when he filled Scott Christopherson’s spot with sophomore Jimmy Butler, who was Fulce’s teammate at Tyler Community College.

The 6’5″ wing from Tomball, Texas signed in April and was supposed to be a versatile player who could guard three positions and, at the very least, balance out the recruiting class.  Almost two years later, Butler has gone from late add-on to the Golden Eagles’ most important player.

Butler chose to take the junior college route out of high school after fully qualifying but failing to receive a scholarship from his top choice Missisippi State.  Rather than taking a low Division I offer or enrolling in prep school, Butler found himself at Tyler Community College.

In his first year at TCC, Butler burst onto the scene, averaging 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game for the Apaches, who finished the season ranked 10th in the country.  After receiving offers from Kentucky, Clemson, Missisippi State and Iowa State, Butler chose to hop on board with his JUCO teammate Fulce and Marquette.

With seniors Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and Dominic James and junior Lazar Hayward averaging more than 30 minutes per game in the starting lineup, Butler struggled to find minutes during the early portion of his freshman year.  He averaged just over 16 minutes per game in non-conference play, primarily as Marquette’s second man off the bench behind sophomore Pat Hazel.

He looked lost on offense and got rid of the ball faster than most announcers could acknowledge he even had the ball, and on defense he was slow on the perimeter and committed silly fouls that questioned his basketball IQ.

But as Big East play rolled in, and games went from three point contests against Houston Baptist to grind it out, physical boxing matches against Villanova, Butler proved the early struggles were growing pains and not trends.

Pegged as a guard out of junior college, pre-season injuries to Fulce and Otule meant more time down low for the 6’5″ Butler.  But he constantly battled inside with the best in the Big East, and became one of Marquette’s hardest working and most talented interior defenders.  The size wasn’t there, but the heart sure was.

Jimmy Butler has gone from bench player to right hand man for senior Lazar Hayward. (AP Photo/Thomas Cain)

Butler capped off the 2008-2009 season with great efficiency on offense and shut down defense, including a season-high 19-point performance in Marquette’s Big East Tournament loss to Villanova.

With his rookie season under his belt and three of Marquette’s all-time greats off the roster, Butler knew that his role would have to increase both on the court and off it in 2009.  The buzz all summer was that Butler had taken on a leadership role, improved his outside game, and become Hayward’s right-hand man.

With the high expectations floating all around campus, fans expected improvement during Butler’s junior season.  What they didn’t expect was a completely different player that has truly been the glue to Marquette’s roller coaster season.

Looking back, you wouldn’t recognize the sophomore Jimmy Butler, getting beat off the dribble by smaller guards and being outworked in the paint.  Rather, Butler has taken on the daunting task of matching up with the opposing team’s best player on most nights.  He has earned praise from Buzz as Marquette’s best on the ball defender, leads the team in blocks, and is second in rebounds to Hayward.

On offense, Butler’s efficiency is once again through the roof as the Pomeroy Rankings have Butler listed as the third most efficient player offensively in the country.  He averages a ridiculous 1.90 points per shot (second on the team is Maurice Acker at 1.40, Hayward’s is 1.17), he has made 32 more free throws than any other Marquette player has attempted, ranks fifth in the Big East shooting 58 percent from the floor, and his 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is third on the team behind Maurice Acker and David Cubillan.

Taking nothing away from Hayward or the fantastic senior season he is putting together, but there are more trends that suggest Marquette goes as Butler goes.  Hayward actually averages more points in the team’s losses (18.5) than in their wins (16.4).  On the other hand, Butler has averaged 12.4 points per game in Marquette’s eight losses, while posting 16.7 points per game in their 13 wins.

There’s no question who Marquette’s best player is: Lazar Hayward.  Whenever the game is on the line, Hayward is the one expected to carry the rest of the team on his back and make or break a game.  Even Butler admitted, in a pre-season interview with me, that seeing Hayward make the tournament in his senior year is “all I live for right now.”

But as it goes with Marquette’s style of play, the most important player on the court is the one forced to play out of position and grind the whole game without many of the headlines.  Think about it: how many times have you seen Butler’s box score and thought to yourself, “wow, I didn’t realize he had 16 points”?

He might get the headlines after a game-winning bucket to beat UConn in Hartford, but for the most part Butler has flown under the radar while Hayward does a little bit of everything and Darius Johnson-Odom shoots the lights out from deep.

The comparison is much like Hayward was last season behind James, McNeal, and Matthews.  While Hayward averaged 16.8 points and 8.3 points, Marquette’s up-tempo offense meant the boys down low would be all but forgotten.

Butler will have his time to shine next season when he enjoys his senior season with his old teammate in Fulce, along with fellow-JUCO transfer Dwight Buycks. Butler’s improvement from last season to this has him as the leading candidate for most improved Player in the Big East and, even more importantly, has earned him the respect of teammates, coaches, and fans alike.


January 30, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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