|Clarke's transfer from Arkansas means Butler will be a bona fide A10 contender next season. (US Presswire)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- A year ago, Brad Stevens' Butler team shot the ball with such poor efficiency from beyond the arc that it didn't even qualify for the rankings. Two-hundred fifty, no sign of the team that has been known over the years for its abundance of lights-out shooters. That's because Bulldogs made fewer than five trifectas per game and connected on just 28 percent of their 3-pointers.
"It was probably the worst Butler has shot it since Hinkle was built," Stevens said with a laugh.
That's about to change.
Swish. Swish. Swish. It got repetitive watching Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham drain 3-pointers in the side gym in Hinkle Fieldhouse. They guys rarely miss. After a workout in which nearly 400 shots were hoisted by the duo, the number of shots read the following: 81 percent. Clarke came back later that night and drained 400 of 446 for a ridiculous 90 percent.
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"I think guys who struggled to make shots last year will show better next year because they won't have all the pressure on the world to be shot-makers," Stevens said.
Nope. Just leave that to the 22-year-old Clarke -- the veteran, proven shooter and Dunham -- the young gunslinger.
Clarke decided to leave Arkansas after three seasons following the departure of John Pelphrey and the Oklahoma native spent last season honing his point guard skills against the defensive-minded Ronald Nored each day in practice. There have been no shortage of skeptics who question whether Clarke, who has always spent the vast majority of his time playing off the ball, can effectively run a team.
"I know there are questions," Clarke said. "But I always knew I could do it. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but now it feels natural to have the ball in my hands."
"I'm confident Rotnei can play the point and play it well," Stevens said. "He can obviously shoot it at the highest level, with anyone in the world, and he has an impressive feel for the game."
Clarke is still working his way back to 100 percent following a pair of ankle surgeries back in early March. He said he's been in constant pain since arriving in Fayetteville four years ago and that the recent procedure has allowed him to play without discomfort -- and has also given him improved lateral quickness.
Clarke and Dunham, who committed to Butler as a sophomore, will immediately change the complexion of a Butler program that's most glaring weakness last season was its ability to make shots from deep. Clarke's resume includes 274 career 3-pointers, a 42 percent percentage from beyond the arc and also putting up 15.2 points per game as a junior for the Razorbacks. However, Stevens is still not ready to give him the heavyweight belt as the best shooter who donned a Butler uniform. At least not yet.
"I was an assistant when Darnell Archey played," Stevens said. "He'd make 35 straight in a shooting workout from 25 feet. He did things that weren't even logical and that's why he's the best free throw shooter in NCAA history."
But Clarke is no slouch. I've ranked him as the top shooter in the country from the day he stepped foot on campus in Fayetteville. It was the best advice (the only good advice) Willie Warren gave me back in the day: "Go see the white kid from Oklahoma who doesn't look like much of a player. He's the best shooter in the country."
Warren was right. Clarke is the best shooter in the nation, and after a year off, he'll regain his throne. But even more importantly, Clarke will make Stevens and Butler nationally relevant again. The Bulldogs did win 22 games a year ago, but missed out on the NCAA tournament after consecutive championship game appearances.
Stevens wouldn't commit to a particular starting lineup, but our best guess is Clarke and talented junior Chrishawn Hopkins in the backcourt with do-it-all (except shoot) sophomore Roosevelt Jones and Khyle Marshall as the forwards and senior big man Andrew Smith in the middle. That'll allow Stevens to bring Dunham off the bench for an offensive spark.
It's certainly a loaded roster for the Horizon League, but there's only one issue: Butler is moving to the A-10.
"No knock on the Horizon," Clarke said. "But the competition in the A-10 will be much higher. Now we're in a position where we can earn an at-large bid easier."
Trust me, this is a team that could contend for the A-10 title in its inaugural season in the league. Especially if Clarke can thrive in his new role.
"I think we can be really good," he added. "We look really good on paper, but we have to do it in games. But I think we've got a lot of talent at every position."
And now they have two of the elite shooters in the country.
"I think he's the best shooter in the country," Clarke said of his 6-foot-4 freshman teammate.
With all due respect to Dunham, who might hold it in a year's time, that title still belongs to Clarke.