Butler men's put down Hesston

Lionel Tipton
DeeJuan Pruitt dunks against Hesston on Saturday, Jan. 23 at the Power Plant in El Dorado, Kansas.

EL DORADO—Having completed the undercard in impressive fashion, the Butler men’s basketball team now shifts its attention to the gauntlet that is the Jayhawk Conference.

That gauntlet begins next Saturday at Dodge City (1-0). 

The Grizzlies (2-0) were missing their only returning player because of an ankle injury Saturday afternoon, but the new faces – a mix of transfers and true freshmen – methodically dismantled visiting Hesston, 101-37.

So dominant was Butler’s performance that it never trailed and was tied just once, at 2-2 in the opening minutes. Hesston just shot 20 percent for the game (12 of 61).

In this interesting blend of players, 6-foot-3 sophomore transfer Noah Thomassson led five Grizzlies in double figures with a game-high 19 points. Freshman DeeJuan Pruitt recorded Butler’s first double-double of the season with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“This is my second year here (at Butler), but in many ways it feels like the first year all over again,” coach Kyle Fisher said afterward. “We had complete turnover on our roster, and our guys are learning a new system one day at a time.”

As satisfying as this performance was for the Grizzlies, Fisher tried to tamp down expectations with league play approaching. A seven-year assistant at perennial power Coffeyville before coming to Butler last season, Fisher knows the league’s diverse strength all too well.

“The Jayhawk is the best conference in the country,” Fisher said. “There’s good teams coming in every Wednesday and Saturday night. If you don’t play the way you need to play, you’ll get beat. 

“We’ve got a resilient group. We’ve got a group that may be even a little naïve in what we’re getting into with league play. We’ve shown improvement at a very rapid pace this month, but we’ve got a week to prepare for one of the most talented teams in the country in Dodge City, and then another one of the top teams in the country in Hutchinson right after that (at home Feb. 3).”

Butler’s defense created nightmares for the Larks (1-1). Pruitt and his teammates muscled up on the boards for a commanding 57-27 rebounding advantage. The Grizzlies had six steals, half of Hesston’s total. Meanwhile, Butler only committed eight turnovers in the entire game, and no one had more than two.

Thomasson (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), who came to Butler from Houston Baptist, had 10 first-half points. Many of these were on driving layups, when he used his speed to get to the hoop much like a running back hits the hole in football.

“It’s something we work on every day,” he said. “Just try to get downhill and get shots for other guys. That’s really what I try to do every day for my teammates.” 

Stifling defense is a foundational part of Butler’s game, he said.

“If we keep playing defense like we did (Saturday), I think we really can be a good team,” Thomasson said. “Defense is like the high focal point of our system.”

For his part, Pruitt (6-8, 210) plugged up the middle, and many of his points came on stickbacks of missed Grizzlies shots.

“I focus on dominating in the paint, getting my other teammates going by getting a rebound and getting blocks,” he said. 

Oh, and in the second half there weren’t too many of those. The Grizzlies, who shot 46 percent in the first half, made 22 of 32 second-half shots (69 percent), blunting any comeback hopes Hesston might have had. Butler outscored the Larks, 58-18, in the period. 

When Thomasson wasn’t slashing his way inside or Pruitt wasn’t clearing the boards, Butler also flexed its muscle from the perimeter, hitting 12 three-pointers in the game – sinking 54 percent of their second-half attempts.

Leading the blitz was another transfer-freshman duo. Sophomore Keyon Thomas, an Emporia State transfer, hit five of his six tries and had 15 points, and freshman Treylon Payne knocked down four of six for 14 points. Also in double figures was freshman Isaiah Williams with 10.

Transfers can play an important role in a program, as having had a previous taste of the college experience often can lead to more maturity. But Fisher said he likes all his newcomers.

“This year’s class of newcomers are all ‘high-character’ guys,” he said. “I think that’s really important. We’ve got a really resilient, high-character group.”

With five players now at NCAA Division I schools and one at a Division II school, Fisher said it was crucial to find the right players to replace them.

“We were fortunate to get some transfers along with some really quality freshmen,” he said.