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The Lickliter Way: Explained (sort of)

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After last night's Duquesne game I decided to do some research on the so-called basketball system often referred to as The Butler Way that Iowa hired two years ago by way of Todd Lickliter. I thought I had a sense of what it was before, but watching Iowa play these first two games I was beginning to wonder what I was watching.

So, thanks to a handful of very informative articles on-line and a look at the NCAA Statistics Archive I think I now have a much better sense of what kind of team Todd Lickliter is trying to build at Iowa.

The first thing to know is that The Butler Way is not Todd Lickliter's invention. If anyone holds that distinction it would most likely be former Butler coach and current Athletic Director Barry Collier, working off of the values and principles of long-time Butler coach and Indiana basketball legend, Tony Hinkle.

Tony Hinkle coached at Butler from 1945 - 1970 and during that time instilled core values in the program that included humility, passion, unity, and accountability and to a certain degree subservience. After he retired in 1970 Butler's next two coaches attempted to make Butler a more progressive program that played a run and gun style of basketball, recruiting the best possible athletes they could get their hands on. But...after two coaches and 19 years of below .500 basketball, in 1989 Butler hired Barry Collier.

Collier promised to bring Butler back to the Hinkle values by recruiting players who were "team first" guys (mostly home grown from Indiana), totally committed to Collier, Butler and the program's core principles. Collier was successful quickly as he built a team-above-self style basketball team. In his second year he coached the team to the NIT, and in his third year he took Butler to the conference championship game and again to the NIT. The die had been cast and Butler was back on the map and in the NCAAs.

But how did he do it?

Collier believed in defense, defense, defense. Butler would become a team known for its intensity and strict adherence to fundamentally sound team defense. Butler did not then, and has really never been able to recruit great athletes. They acknowledged this limitation under Collier who coached to the strengths of the kind of players they knew they could recruit. Players who were desperate to play Div. I basketball and would sell their souls to do so. Butler evolved under Collier as teams filled with great guard play and guys who could play several positions, all of whom were good free throw shooters, players who could hit an open three, and would set screens and block out.

Over time Butler teams would annually look statistically like this:

Ranked among the top nationally

  • Points allowed (usually in the low to mid 60s)
  • Defense shooting percentage (low to mid 40s)
  • Free throw percentage (but not made free throws as his teams did not get to the line often)
  • Three-point FGs made (around 9-10 per game) with a decent percentage (high 30s or better)
  • Turnovers allowed (usually fewer than 10 per game)
  • Points per game (high 60s)

 Ranked among the bottom nationally

  • Steals
  • Blocked shots
  • Assists
  • Rebound margin

So, you're beginning to get the picture. Some fundamentals were elaborated upon by Thad Matta who succeeded Collier in 2000 for one year. Collier left to take the head-coaching job at Nebraska in 2000 and it is worth noting that Collier was not able to duplicate his Butler success at Nebraska and left there in 2006 season with an 89-91 record and zero 20-win seasons. Matta brought in a few more defensive principles from Dick Bennett who was a Wisconsin coaching legend and at UW at the time.  It is fair to say Matta further refined The Butler Way in his lone season at Butler. Matta saw even greater value in the 3-point shot and making EVERY possession count. As usual, under Matta they were a Top Ten team defense.

Lickliter succeeded Matta in 2001 and saw instant success using The Butler Way. Lickliter would win 26 or more games in three of his six seasons at Butler.



So, has The Butler Way translated to Iowa? Let's look at the statistics for some clues. First, let's look at Iowa's national ranking from the 2008-9 season in the areas that are at the CORE of The Butler Way

  • Points allowed - ranked 14th allowing 59 pts/game
  • Defense shooting percentage - ranked 138th at 44%
  • Free throw percentage - ranked 26th at 74%
  • Three-point FGs made -ranked 71st in percentage made at 8.1/game at 36%
  • Turnovers allowed - ranked 58th at 12.5/game
  • Points per game - 60.1

Okay, so Iowa's defense shooting percentage allowed ranking last year was way too low and will need to improve for this system to work. Also, the number of three point FGs made is too low and the percentage needs to improve as well. There are also too many turnovers allowed. Ball control is crucial to the The Butler Way and last year Iowa just wasn't efficient with the ball. It is obvious to me now that Tony Freeman and Jeff Peterson were not the model point guard for Lickliter. Lickliter wants a general on the court who sets the tone for how the team will handle the ball. He also wants a subservient point guard who does whatever he asks and is a mirror reflection of Lickliter's values and ideals. I think the PG position is huge for Lickliter.  At the end of the day, Iowa's shortfalls in these areas led to Iowa scoring about 10 points a game too few. But defensively Iowa was exactly where all these Butler teams usually are in the 15.

To finish it off...Iowa was predictably ranked near the bottom last year in:

  • Steals - ranked 319th out of 330 teams
  • Blocked shots - ranked 283rd
  • Assists - ranked 258th
  • Rebound margin - ranked 197th

Again, most of these stats are not relevant to The Butler Way. Butler rarely recruits tall and/or athletic players who can block shots or make steals. Butler packs it in and dares other teams to make three point shots. Once they do, Butler extends out to the three-point line. Iowa did the same thing. But to conclude with last year's team, Iowa's assist to turnover ratio did not cut it (they averaged 3 more turnovers than the system can tolerate) but the rest is within the range of the system's tolerance.

I am going to suggest that Lickliter is building this team from the defense up and out. He is trying to get the defensive principles firmly in place and expects that offensively they will grow and become better ball handlers, more efficient from the three point line, and able to reduce turnovers. If they do not, however, you can expect the results of the first two games. But this is what The Lickliter Way is...this is how it is going to be:

  • Methodical on the offensive end, in order to tire out the opposing team's defense and limit touches for them
  • Win games scoring 60 - 65 points a game or even less
  • Defensive intensity, winning the lose balls, taking charges, generally making life miserable for the other team with physical play but not particularly athletic play
  • Close games won on the free throw line and/or with clutch late game three point shooting and good defense

Lickliter probably wants to evenually build depth too.


Lastly, let's look at Iowa's first two games this season to see how they are performing in terms of The Lickliter Way:

  • Points allowed - 57 points/game (this is about where the system wants it)
  • Defense shooting percentage - 39%/game (this is better than last year and right where the system wants it)
  • Free throw percentage - 61%/game (15% below acceptability)
  • Three-point FGs made -5.5/game (5 too few) at 20% (15-20% below acceptability)
  • Turnovers allowed - 15.5/game (more than 5 too many for the system's liking)
  • Points per game - 50 points/game (10 below last year and 15 below the ideal)

Bottom line, Iowa is doing defensively what The Lickliter Way would like from a statistical point of view. Offensively, however, is another story. It comes down to Iowa having too many turnovers, and making too few three point shots at too low of a percentage. If Iowa improves behind the three-point line in number of makes and in terms of percentage and takes care of the ball MUCH BETTER...then you might see better results. I know what you're thinking though: once the Big Ten season starts the Hawkeyes will face better, more skilled teams ofeensively and Iowa's defensive statistics may not hold--and offensively Iowa will face quicker, taller teams with more experience so they may regress even further there as well. You're right and Lickliter would say this is the beginning of the beginning. 

FINAL NOTE: I can see why Lickliter and his system was hired at Iowa. It is, simplistically stated, a basketball version of how Iowa wins football games. We'll see if it pans out.