Oct. 31, 2005
The future is now for Butler and head coach Beth Couture. After turning in the program's first .500 season in six years in 2004-05 and posting the 14th-best winning percentage improvement in NCAA Division I in 2003-04, the Bulldogs are poised to make a serious run at the 2006 Horizon League Championship. Butler's roster now solely includes players that have spent their entire Butler careers under Couture and the talent level is arguably the best since the program's postseason squads of the late 1990s.
"I see this team as being as good or better offensively than we were a year ago," said Couture. "We have more options on defense this season which should allow us to match up well depending on our opponent. That is something we haven't been able to do in years past. What we have to remember as a staff is that this team is incredibly young. We're going to improve as the season goes along as we gain experience."
The biggest question mark entering last season was at the point where "All-Horizon League" performer Nancy Bowden had been for four seasons. In stepped Jackie Closser. All she did was finish in the top 50 nationally in assists, three-point percentage and three-pointers made. Her 67 treys set a new Butler single-season mark. Her backcourt mate, Ellen Hamilton, avoided the sophomore slump after "All-Newcomer Team" honors in 2003-04 by finishing second on the team in scoring (11.2 ppg) and leading the Horizon League in free throw percentage (.867). The juniors combined for 22 points per game and 38-percent long-range shooting last season.
"We feel real solid at the point with Jackie back healthy and in the best shape of her career," said Couture. "She's become extremely confident in our system and was a steadying influence for us last year. Ellen has worked hard to be a threat off the dribble this year, adding that to her three-point shot. She's going to be a big part of our offense this season."
There is greater depth in the backcourt this season, which should alleviate the need for Closser to play 38 minutes a contest like she did last season. Sophomore Ashley Conner provides the Bulldogs with a steady, floor general off the bench, while senior Jessica Smart has earned the reputation as a tenacious defender. Newcomers Candyce Brown and Candace Jones are expected to provide instant offense for the Bulldogs. Brown was a 40-percent three-point shooter and Ohio McDonald's All-American nominee at perennial power Pickerington North. Jones earned "All-Indianapolis" honors at Tech High School, pouring in 22 points per contest.
"What we have now are players on the bench who will push Jackie and Ellen for playing time," said Couture. "Ashley worked extremely hard during the offseason on her strength and conditioning, which has helped her overall game. Jess has really settled down in our system and now feels more comfortable. That has allowed her to play more at ease both offensively and defensively.
"Candace Jones is a very versatile guard, who could see some time at the point for us this season. She's a scorer, but she brings a lot of things to the floor. Candyce Brown has the potential to be our stopper defensively. Her versatility will allow for her to play at shooting guard or small forward."
On the wing, sophomore Cassie Freeman returns after a stellar freshman campaign that saw her earn "All-Newcomer Team" honors. She started 22 games and finished sixth on the team in both minutes and scoring. Showing versatility, Freeman also spent some time in the post last season after injuries depleted Butler's frontcourt. Senior co-captain Stephanie Boeke will also see extensive playing time in her final season. An above average one-on-one defender, Boeke's presence in the line-up allows the Bulldogs to go more up-tempo. She used her athleticism to finish second on the team in offensive rebounding in 2004-05.
"Cassie's strength at the small forward position is that she is able to go inside or outside," said Couture. "This opens up our offense this season because we can use her in a number of sets. Cassie has focused on being a rebounder on both ends of the court and that should pay dividends this season. Steph has done a tremendous job leading our team this offseason. She's worked hard on finishing at the basket and will once again be asked to be a defensive presence."
The most uncertainty for the Bulldogs lies in the post where two newcomers and two second-year players join just one senior to vie for playing time at power forward and center. The Bulldogs lost leading scorer and rebounder Cortney Urquhart to graduation and two-year starter Ashley Brenden will not return.
Sophomore Candace Bain earned more playing time as her rookie campaign progressed last season. Seeing action in 15 games, Bain was able to briefly show her ability to score on the block or from behind the arc. Senior Gina Grussing is fully recovered from an ACL tear that cut short her 2004-05 season. The junior college transfer was excelling in her role as a rebounder off the bench before the injury cost her the final 10 contests of the season. Senior Nikki Budgake has seen action in 49 contests in her three seasons in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
"Candace really becomes our X-factor for the upcoming season," said Couture. "She's going to be called on to play and will see a significant jump in minutes. She's worked hard on getting stronger and has become more physical in the post. Gina is recovering well and we're excited that she'll be available for our first contest. Nikki is one of two seniors that have been here with this coaching staff from our first days on campus, so she should be comfortable with what we are trying to do."
Those returning players are going to be pushed for post minutes by a pair of talented, accomplished newcomers in freshman Lade Akande and junior college transfer Carla Gheorghe. Akande is an athletic 6-1 player who scored nearly 2,000 points in her career at Robinson (Ill.) High and was named MVP of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association 2005 Class A Girls All-Star Game. Gheorghe polished off her two-year stint at Vincennes (Ind.) University with National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I First-Team All-American and NJCAA Region XII "Player of the Year" honors. She posted 20.6 points per game.
"Carla is a very talented offensive player," said Couture. "She understands the game as well as anyone I've ever coached. Lade is an athlete, plain and simple. She's going to help us on both ends of the court as a pure shot-blocker and low-post scorer."
Butler's schedule opens with a tilt against in-state foe and perennial power Purdue in West Lafayette Nov. 18. The Bulldogs will spend the Thanksgiving weekend in California at St. Mary's tournament, joining the host Gales, Central Florida and Princeton. Butler doesn't open Hinkle Fieldhouse until Dec. 10 when Ball State comes to town. The Cardinals are one of six Indiana foes on the schedule (joining Purdue, Indiana State, Evansville, IUPUI and IPFW). The non-conference schedule also includes Eastern Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and UMBC.
The depth in the Horizon League continues to improve and the title is up for grabs in 2006 as defending champion UW-Green Bay graduated four starters. The Phoenix comes to Hinkle Fieldhouse to close out the regular season Feb. 25. UIC, 2005's biggest surprise, and tournament runner-up Wright State also return strong line-ups as Butler will engage in home-and-home series with all eight of its Horizon League opponents.