Home Column Column: Butler women’s basketball’s under-the-radar success

Column: Butler women’s basketball’s under-the-radar success

Butler women's basketball head coach. Photo by Brent Smith for Butler Athletics

By Chris Brown

In the midst of what should have been March Madness, it’s easy to stop and wonder how far the Butler men’s basketball team would have made it in the NCAA Tournament. There’s also plenty of time to stop and reflect upon the team’s season overall, which, though rocky at times, should most certainly be considered a success.

While the men’s basketball team receives significant attention, particularly in competitive seasons, the women’s team has tallied 22 Big East victories over the past two seasons but far too often gets lost in the shadows. 

And while last year’s women’s team — in competition for an NCAA Tournament bid for much of the season — got the program increased attention, this year’s success is actually in many ways even more impressive, and reveals more than ever the abilities of sixth-year head coach Kurt Godlevske.

To explain, let’s first take a look back at the last two seasons for the women’s basketball team, and then break down what it all means.

2018-19 season:

The 2018-19 season was the best yet for the program under Godlevske, then in his fifth season at the helm. The team went 23-10, including 11-7 in Big East play, which was good for third in the conference standings. After falling off a bit down the stretch, the Bulldogs missed the NCAA Tournament, but did make the WNIT postseason tournament, where they advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to Cincinnati.

Last season’s success came with one of the best teams in recent program history. Three players averaged 12 or more points per game, and another two averaged roughly seven or more points per contest.

Point guard Whitney Jennings, who is 20th in program history in total points despite only playing two seasons with Butler, averaged 15.5 points per game in her senior season, good for sixth in the conference. Senior center Tori Schickel, who became the program’s all-time leading rebounder, averaged nearly a double-double with 12.5 points and nine boards per game. 

Senior guard Michelle Weaver averaged roughly seven points per game and was named Big East defensive player of the year, while junior Kristen Spolyar and redshirt junior Katherine Strong averaged 13.2 and 7.5 points per game, respectively.

The Bulldogs had the best scoring defense and field goal percentage defense in the conference, and after their success led Godlevske to be named Big East coach of the year. It was the team’s highest conference win total since joining the Big East and its highest overall win total since 2009-10. 

2019-20 season:

Following up that amount of success would certainly be a tall order, particularly given the circumstances. 

With Jennings, Shickel and Weaver all lost to graduation, over 50% of the team’s scoring from a season ago was gone entering this school year. What was left was just one player who averaged eight or more points per game last season: Spolyar. 

After finishing third the prior season, the Bulldogs were picked by the conference’s coaches to finish seventh in the Big East this season following those key departures. But like the men’s team, the Bulldogs vastly exceeded expectations this season. 

Also like the men’s team, the ride wasn’t always smooth. After putting up an impressive 8-3 record in nonconference play, the Bulldogs proceeded to drop both of their first Big East games of the season, both at Hinkle Fieldhouse. 

But what came next was incredibly impressive. The team, relying on a host of inexperienced players, rallied to win nine of their next 10 games, with five of those victories coming on the road. That pulled them into the race amongst the top teams in the Big East standings.

Down the final stretch, though, the team struggled, dropping their final four road contests to eliminate any hopes of a top-two finish in the Big East standings and likely any hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth along with it.

In the end, though, Butler finished with the exact same conference record, 11-7, as it did the season prior. Though they were likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs once again figured to be in the field for the WNIT postseason tournament.

What it means:

With the team’s season cut short and Godlevske not receiving the same attention he did last season, it can be easy to miss just how strong of a coaching job took place this season.

In her senior season, Spolyar upped her scoring average from roughly 13 points per game to over 18 per contest, and scored 25 or more points in eight games. 

Neither of the team’s second or third-leading scorers, freshman guard Oumou Toure and redshirt junior guard Genesis Parker, played a single minute for the Bulldogs last season. This season, the two combined for average over 18 points per game.

Without Weaver, one of the best defenders in the country, the Bulldogs still had the third-best scoring defense and field goal percentage defense in the Big East. Without Schickel, the Bulldogs were still amongst the conference leaders in rebounding margin.

When he took over the program, Godlevske inherited a program in a really rough spot, with not a single returning starter. Last season was extremely impressive. But this season was really the most revealing. 

As UConn — and its legendary women’s basketball program — gets set to join the Big East next school year, the task at hand for Godlevske in a league which usually only gets a few NCAA Tournament bids on the women’s side will only get harder. But this season has made one thing crystal clear: Godlevske is ready for the challenge.