Team preview: Butler

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Butler is back. Maybe not all the way back, but the Bulldogs are getting there. After two off years, Butler returned to the 20-win plateau in 2005-06. It also returned to the postseason, reaching the second round of the NIT before losing a close one, 67-63, at Florida State.

All the way back by Butler standards means hanging a Horizon League championship banner in Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Bulldogs won four straight from 2000-03. Last year's runner-up finish to Wisconsin-Milwaukee was a signal that Butler is ready to resume the fight in what should be a wide-open league race this winter.

Now, the sobering news. Three starters are gone from a lineup that opened all 33 games together and one of them is last year's Horizon League Player of the Year Brandon Polk. The other two departed starters, Bruce Horan and Avery Sheets, were 1,000-point career scorers.

"It's going to be an interesting time when you lose three starters who played a lot of minutes," coach Todd Lickliter said. "And then we've got guys who had been injured in the off-season in the past and we haven't seen what they can do with an off-season of work. It's exciting. We've got a kind of a blank canvas in a way. There's some opportunities there."

The two guys Lickliter was referring to are Brian Ligon (2.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg) and Julian Betko (2.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg). Both were the top reserves for Butler last year, Ligon inside and Betko on the wing. Both have been restricted in the past by serious knee surgeries. Both spent the summer of 2005 in the rehab process rather than on a basketball court and it showed. While their contributions were instrumental in Butler's improvement, Lickliter wonders what they might have accomplished coming off a full summer of playing hoops. This winter, he'll find out.

Ligon, a 6-7 senior, and Betko, a 6-5 senior, enjoyed a healthy summer of playing basketball and conditioning. Ligon, in fact, had gone through two summers of rehab, the result of knee injuries in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

"Here's a kid that has had two summers all rehab," Lickliter said. "Can you imagine that? But this summer he's really been able to be active. I don't know what to project for him, but it's got to be better than not doing it. I could sit here and complain about how good he could have been if he had those other years, but he didn't. He made the most of it and I'm proud of the way he handled it."

In fact, Ligon, who was a starter as a freshman before his first injury, and Betko, who began his career at Clemson, have been a much bigger help to their team than their numbers indicate.

"Those guys inspire other people by fighting through those things because they want to play," Lickliter said. "It makes it hard for the other guys to feel sorry for themselves and not give a good amount of effort."

Everybody will have to give a good effort to compensate for the loss of Polk, Sheets and Horan. Polk was a stud in the paint. Get him the ball and he would find a way to score. In retrospect, Lickliter wishes he had been able to red-shirt Polk in 2004-05 when he played through a shoulder injury. With a full-speed Polk back in the paint this winter, the Bulldogs might be the favorite to win the league. Alas, Polk is playing professionally in Europe. Sheets and Horan were among the top three-point marksmen on a team that set a school record with 300 three-point baskets. Horan sank 113 treys to account for all but three of his baskets last year.

"I don't know how we replace those guys, especially Polk," Lickliter said. "It may not be one guy. That's part of coaching. We didn't know how we were going to replace guys in the past but we did it. Hopefully, we'll be strong enough as a team to compensate for that."