The Butler women's basketball team is jumping into a 2012-13 season that is full of unknowns. The Bulldogs have seven newcomers, the team's leading scorer is out for the season and Butler is now a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference. After multiple trips to the WNIT and Horizon League title game, Butler will be trying to crack the top of a deep and tough A-10 league.
"It's fun for me to be in the A-10 because we get to see where our program is," head coach Beth Couture said. "Where are we going to be (in the A-10) this year? What's our vision for the future? And for me, as the head coach, that's the most fun."
Butler, which finished 9-9 in the Horizon League last year after four straight 20-win seasons, will be moving to one of college basketball's power conferences in a year in which the team is one of the nation's least experienced. According to an offseason survey, the Bulldogs enter 2012-13 as the 12th least experienced team in the country.
"We're definitely young, class-wise. But if you look at the minutes, we're experienced," Couture noted. "We are having to bring a lot of things together, but I'll give our team credit. On the court, they're a unit. And for this early for me to see a unit, that's unheard of."
With all of the new elements in personnel, scheduling and conference affiliation thrown together, there is one thing Couture says is certain. This team will compete every day and will improve throughout the season.
"It's fun to be out there with this group," Couture said. "They compete every day and we've not always had that. They try to make each other better. Our team, on the court, understands what they want to do. And that is to be successful. "
NEW POINT GUARDS
In Butler's system, the point guard position is critical. Some of the best players during Couture's time at Butler have been point guards, such as Nancy Bowden (2002-04), Jackie Closser (2003-07) and Terra Burns (2007-11). This year, the Bulldogs have two young point guards who are cut from the same mold as those former standouts in sophomore Taylor Schippers and freshman Lexus Murry.
Schippers will be the primary ball-handler to start the season. The Texas native came to Butler after playing last season at Oklahoma State. She transferred during the offseason and was granted immediate eligibility. One of the top prep players in Texas two years ago, she started 17 games at OSU as a freshman.
"Taylor is a talented basketball player who brings leadership to the point guard position, Couture said. "Offensively, she has deep range. She is very good at pushing the ball up the court. Coming in, we knew about he shooting, but I've been really impressed with her ability to make the right pass. Her passing is going to make it easy on our post players."
Schippers averaged. 25.0 points as a high school senior and then played in some big games as a freshman at the Big 12 level. She helped Oklahoma State to a WNIT title and scored a team-high 11 points against top-ranked Baylor.
"Her experience at the BCS level has helped her here," Couture said. "She understands what it takes to get us to the next level, because she's been there."
The team's other point guard is Murry, an athletic player from Indy's south side. She was an all-state player at Decatur Central. Couture lauded Murry's play on defense in the preseason.
"Lex has done a great job," the Butler coach said. "She's good on the ball defending and she can push the ball up the court as fast as anybody. With the improvements she has made, we fell like our point guard position is in good hands with Taylor and Lexus. They have both been tremendous."
PURE SHOOTERS ON THE WING
Butler has a crop of wing players that may be young when you look at the roster, but these young players have played a lot of minutes. Junior Mandy McDivitt, known as a long-range shooter, returns after being a key reserve the previous two seasons. The other shooting guard is freshman Blaire Langlois and the small forwards on the other side are sophomores Hannah Douglas and Haley Howard.
McDivitt, who played 25 minutes per game last year, has also developed into one of the team's best defenders over the years. In 60 career games, 72 of her 81 field goals have come from beyond the arc. But Couture says McDivitt has added to her game in the offseason.
"I've been very impressed with her moves off the dribble and some passes she has made," Couture said. "If she can continue to do that, she'll be more of a threat. She's one of our older kids now because of injuries, and her experience in our system has helped her."
Langlois, a combo guard from Carmel, Ind., is a well-regarded player Couture expect to challenge for major minutes. The 5-8 Langlois can both shoot and handle the ball, as she spent a lot of time at point guard in high school.
"Blaire is a pure shooter who can really see the floor," Couture said. "She makes great passes. We've also been impressed with how ahead of the game she is defensively. She has a great knowledge for the game."
On the opposite wing, Butler will have Douglas and Howard, with Douglas also playing the shooting guard spot from time to time. Douglas started 28 games as a freshman last year, posting seven double-digit scoring games. The lefty Douglas broke out for 31 points in Butler's home finale at the end of last season. She has proven to be a good rebounder and is effective in driving to the basket.
"Hannah has improved her 3-point shot, she's worked hard on being a consistent shooter," Couture said. "However, her strength is going to be off the dribble. She has a great mid-range shot, and you don't see that much anymore. And defensively, she's solid. She's one of our better communicators on defense."
Howard, a 5-11 forward from just south of Indy, started her college career last year with a bang. She was BU's leading scorer in non-conference play, and at one point led the nation in free throw percentage. Injuries over the course of the season held her back a bit, but Howard still posted solid freshman numbers of 7.7 points and nearly 3.0 rebounds per game. She has come back healthy, with added muscle on her frame, and is primed to be a key player in 2012-13.
"You can tell in Haley's play that she is stronger. She doesn't get pushed around," Couture said. "She's one of our best 3-point shooters and she is a great passer into the post. I think she's going to bring a lot of positives to our team at the '3' spot. She has settled into our system and she'll be a better player this year."
TRANSFERS ANCHOR THE POST SPOTS
During practices last year, it was obvious that an infusion of talent was upcoming for Butler. A pair of transfers, Daress McClung and Liz Stratman, were sitting out after coming to Butler. Both players are impact players who will see their share of minutes this season. Sophomore Amanda Raker is back after gaining a year of experience and freshmen Katie Brewer and Olivia Wrencher are also expected to contribute.
McClung, an Indianapolis native, is the likely starter at the power forward spot. She attended Cincinnati for two seasons, suffered an injury then transferred to Butler. After redshirting last year, the 6-0 forward is ready to take the court for the Bulldogs.
"Daress plays hard and brings it in practice every day, and that's a great example for our young post players," Couture said. "Daress is one of the smartest players I've coached on offense and defense," Couture said. "She is a good outside shooter and has great moves on the block. She'll definitely help with rebounding."
Another piece to Butler's post player puzzle is that 6-2 center Sarah Hamm and 6-1 forward Becca Bornhorst won't play this year due to injuries. Hamm was an all-league player last year and BU's leading scorer. Bornhorst was the only senior on the roster and made 31 career starts. That leaves Raker, who played 15.4 minutes per game last year, as one of the more experienced post players on the team. Couture says Raker is very much improved and up for the challenge.
"I have been impressed with home much 'Rake' has improved on defense and in our system," Couture said. "She is finishing strong under the basket and has shown a nice 15-foot jumper. And she does a good job going to the boards. She can play either post position."
Brewer, a freshman from Indianapolis, is a player Couture says is "full of talent." The 6-1 Brewer can hit the outside shot and is continuing to develop her offense in the post. Couture compares her to former Butler standout Susan Lester, one of the school's all-time leading scorers and rebounders.
"Katie gets better every single day," Couture said. 'She has great range and touch. And she has a great nose for the ball. She broke all of her high school's rebounding records. She finds the ball when it comes off the rim, and that's what we need."
Wrencher is a 6-2 center from the Cincinnati area who has the size and strength to match up against the physical play Butler will see in the Atlantic 10. From the start of preseason practice, Wrencher's improvement has been obvious to the BU coaching staff.
"From our first day, Olivia has improved more than any player I've coached," Couture said. "She absorbs everything and is willing to learn. I think by league time, she'll be somebody who helps us. Her future here will be amazing."
Finally, Butler will add the 6-2 Stratman after final exams in December. She transferred to BU after starting her freshman season at Xavier. Stratman was the player of the year in Indianapolis as a high school senior and will be a key player when she becomes eligible mid-year.
"She is a scorer. She's got the nice outside shot of a guard," Couture said. "From 15 feet or a 3-pointer, or a step-back, she's really good. She has good moves on the block and she's a physical rebounder and defender. Her strength is that she runs the floor. By Christmas, she'll bring depth to what I think is a strong nucleus of post players."
The Bulldogs are certainly eager to experience play in a new conference and to compete against the likes of Dayton, Xavier, St. Bonaventure, Temple and Duquesne. Couture made the point that with such a new team, there won't be as much of a learning curve when it comes to the conference switch.
"Out of our 11 players, only four played in the Horizon League," the Butler coach said. "We have a confident group, and they're excited to go to new places. But when we play the games, we'll look at it all the same. At the end of the day, the kids don't know any different. And that's the attitude our kids have had. We're going to work as hard as we can, and we're going to go out and play."