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October 17, 2008No team lost more than Kansas. The defending national champs must replace all five starters.
But Butler isn't getting off easy. The Bulldogs have said goodbye to four starters and the sixth man from a team that won a school-record 30 games and reached the second round of the 2008 NCAA tournament.
Gone are point guard Mike Green, the 2007-08 Horizon League Player of the Year, and backcourt mate A.J. Graves, who ranks third on the school's career scoring list with 1,807 points. Also gone are two-year starter Julian Betko, defensive specialist Drew Streicher and 3-point specialist Pete Campbell.
That group of five departing seniors is responsible for turning Butler into what is arguably the nation's premier mid-major program and putting the Indianapolis school firmly on the national radar. Over the past two seasons, they carried the Bulldogs to 59 victories. Ten of those came against "Big Six" conference teams, including three over the major programs in its own state (Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue). Five others came in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 in 2007 and last season spent four weeks in the AP Top 10 while getting off to a 16-1 start.
So, have we heard the last of Butler, whose name now resonates with casual fans? Can the Bulldogs reload and remain relevant in the national landscape? Will they continue to dominate the Horizon League?
Just remaining competitive this season looks difficult. The Bulldogs have one returning starter, but he's a good one. Sophomore big man Matt Howard, a former four-star recruit, ranked third on the team in scoring (12.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (5.5 rpg) last season. But guards Willie Veasley and Zach Hahn, both role players, are the only other returnees who have been important parts of the rotation.
The Bulldogs will be young, going from a team that had five seniors to one that won't have any. They are welcoming a five-man freshman class, but none was ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects.
There also are questions about second-year coach Brad Stevens, who at 31 is one of the nation's youngest coaches. Stevens had the luxury of inheriting a veteran-laden team last season from Todd Lickliter, who took the coaching job at Iowa.
Butler has gone 29-5 in the Horizon League the past two seasons, but the Bulldogs seem destined for a fall in the standings. They were picked fifth in the league's preseason poll, behind Cleveland State, Wright State, Illinois-Chicago and Wisconsin-Green Bay.
But there are reasons to believe Butler may be underrated. Howard is the kind of player you can build a team around. If he makes the kind of improvement many sophomores often do, he'll be one of the league's top players. And the recruits may be better than advertised. After all, none of the five departed seniors who had so much success was highly coveted coming out of high school and the newcomers are entering a program that has a culture of winning.
It's clear Butler isn't going to match the success of the past two seasons. Expecting that is unfair. But if the Bulldogs can come anywhere remotely close to that success with this group, this season may be even more impressive than the past two.
Andrew Skwara is a national basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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