The one thing that has kept the Owls from being in a better position for the postseason has been the inconsistent play of sophomore center Keith Butler.
Listed at 7 feet and 250 pounds, the highly recruited Butler has been an enigma. When he asserts himself on the floor, the Owls are a team to be feared. But all too often he displays reluctance and usually ends up sitting on the bench in foul trouble.
“I think he’s a little bit too nice, that’s why he doesn’t have a mean streak,” senior guard David Hawkins said. “That’s why you try to get him mad and once he starts getting mad, then he starts playing.”
Two weeks ago Butler put together solid numbers in back-to-back games. At Rhode Island he registered 11 points, eight rebounds and six blocks. Then against Georgetown he grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. In those two games he played all but seven minutes.
“I’ve been staying out of foul trouble lately, so [coach John Chaney] has been letting me play,” Butler said following the Georgetown win.
Was it a long overdue renaissance for Butler? Not exactly.
Last week against Duquesne he got into early foul trouble and sat for nearly 20 minutes. Then last Saturday against Saint Joseph’s he committed two fouls in the game’s first three minutes and sat on the bench for the remainder of the half. He finished with five points and three rebounds.
Butler admitted sitting on the bench has impeded him from getting into rhythm, but Chaney always sits a player with two fouls in the first half.
The fact is when Butler is producing, the Owls are a much better team. Temple is 7-0 in games where he scores at least 10 points a game and 4-1 when he notches 10 rebounds.
The team has relied on Hawkins and the resurgence of sophomore guard Mardy Collins for scoring. They have produced 61 percent of the team’s total scoring output. As the team captain, Hawkins has constantly reminded Butler to take advantage of his massive size.
“I guess he’s starting to realize that we can’t win without him [Butler],” Hawkins said. “He’s really the most important person on our team because he’s so important on the offensive end and the defensive end. Once he comes to play for us every night it’s going to be hard for us to lose.”
Butler had to fight off a nagging sprained ankle and a mild concussion coming into this season, which caused him to miss two games. Then he had a bout with bronchitis, forcing him to miss a week of practice.
“I didn’t feel like I was real comfortable in the games,” Butler said. “I have no idea [why], it’s just like that some games. It’s just how I play the game. I don’t get into it as fast as I should be.”
The Atlantic Ten Conference is rich in guards but lacks quality big men. Butler is listed as the biggest player in the conference and on Temple’s schedule. But he is only averaging 4.6 points a game and 5.4 rebounds this season. Those numbers aren’t much different from his freshman season. On the plus side, he did lead the A-10 in blocks with 64, including a 2.5 average in conference play.
Chaney’s method of disciplining Butler for foolish mistakes has been cutting his minutes on the court. Despite being the starting center, Butler has played less than 20 minutes in eight games this season.
“I don’t feel comfortable with Keith on the floor for two minutes and off the floor for three,” he said. “Back and forth.”
Junior forward Nehemiah Ingram, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall and 250 pounds, is the only player on the roster that matches Butler’s size. Ingram said the Owls will continue to struggle if Butler doesn’t establish himself more in the post.
“I think he’s in the best shape of the season right now,” Ingram said. “And we’ve been working with him a whole lot and I’ve been going at him real hard [in practice], telling him that he’s got to play a lot harder. He wants more minutes on the floor.”
In practice, Butler’s teammates recognize his taciturn demeanor. Hawkins said the team does all sorts of things to fire Butler up.
“Just call him all types of names, call him little things that would get on anybody’s nerves,” Hawkins said. “Call him soft. Nothing we really mean, just motivational stuff.”
Jason S. Haslam can be reached at email@example.com.