Butler Steps Up As Vocal Leader For Buckeyes

Ohio State junior guard Jamar Butler is a tough competitor who prefers to lead by example. But as one of the few veterans on OSU's talented roster, Butler knows he needs to be more of a vocal leader this season. Butler had a very good sophomore season and hopes to keep improving at such a fast rate. We caught up with him for more.

Many basketball coaches say that players usually make their biggest improvements between their freshman and sophomore seasons.

And never had that been truer than in the case of Ohio State guard Jamar Butler.

The 6-2, 200-pound Butler was Ohio's Mr. Basketball in 2004 out of Lima Shawnee High School. He was a scoring machine in the prep ranks and averaged 31.6 points, 8.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals a game as a senior while shooting 44 percent from the field and 37 percent on three-pointers.

As a freshman at OSU in 2004-05, Butler struggled with his shot for most of the season and averaged 3.6 points, 2.3 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game. He shot 23 percent from three-point range (14-of-61) and 33 percent from the floor (36-of-108).

But Butler emerged as one of the best guards in the Big Ten in 2005-06. He averaged 10.1 points, 4.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and shot a blistering 41.4 percent from three-point range (48-of-116). Butler also proved to be an excellent defender and was second on the Buckeyes with 29 steals.

"At the beginning of the season, (OSU head coach Thad) Matta told me he wanted me to step up and score a little more and run the team," Butler said. "So, I just tried to do what Coach told me to do and I think I had a pretty good year."

Butler started off the season well and his confidence was riding high all year.

"I just tried to play hard each and every game," Butler said. "If you hit a couple shots early it kind of gets you going and your confidence will come up a little bit, but I just try and play the same game every time."

Now as a junior, Butler is one of the leaders on the team. He likes to lead by example, but understands that he might have to change his approach a little bit.

"This summer, I tried to be more of a vocal leader because we don't have Je'Kel Foster this year and he was our vocal leader last year," Butler said. "So, I'm going to try and step up and fill his shoes."

That is music to the ears of Matta, who has been preaching to Butler for months to be more of a vocal leader. Matta thought that Butler was "the most improved player in the country last year" and thinks his game continues to evolve.

"Yeah, we want to see the same thing on the court from Jamar, but then just providing a little bit more leadership," Matta said. "And Jamar is not a guy that says a lot, you guys have probably figured that out by now from talking with him. Just the ins and outs of practicing and like I've always said I want guys that shine the last half hour of a two-hour practice and that's what Jamar does. If you get the other four guys going like that, the better basketball team you are going to have. And I need Jamar, Ron (Lewis) Ivan (Harris) and Matt (Terwilliger) to show our young guys how you do that."

And Butler seems to be embracing his new role. With arguably the top recruiting class in the country joining the team, Butler knows the five newcomers will need some veteran leadership.

"We're going to have a lot of responsibilities as upperclassmen because we have a young group that hasn't played the college game yet, haven't played with a shot clock," Butler said. "It's going to be tough, but we're just going to have to keep working to get through it."

But with players like 7-1 freshman center Greg Oden, the Buckeyes' talent might supercede their youth.

"I believe so because they are really good," Butler said. "They are the best freshmen I've ever seen, so I think they will overcome it."

Butler was asked what first came to his mind when he knew that the "Thad Five" was definitely coming to OSU.

"National championship was the first thing that came to my mind when I found out all these guys were coming and were committed," he said. "I knew we had them when they signed, they're stuck. No, but I was pretty excited."

And Butler says the new players have meshed well with the returnees.

"Since they first came in we've all been close," he said. "They knew us and we knew them from their visits and it didn't take much for us to bond. We're already close."

Butler has been especially impressed with Oden, who could be OSU's best recruit since Jerry Lucas. Oden said all along he wanted to go to college, but he would have been the No. 1 pick of the NBA draft in 2006 if he was eligible (which he wasn't due to the NBA's age restrictions) and decided to go that route.

"Greg, he's a hard worker," Butler said. "A lot of kids who are the No. 1 high school player in the nation, you won't find them working too hard. But Greg came in during the summer and he's been working hard ever since he got here.

"I think he is going to add everything. He's going to score, he's going to block shots, he's going to rebound, he's going to draw the defense to him, which is good for the guards on the perimeter. He's going to be a great addition to this team."

Oden is recovering from a broken right wrist and could be out until early January, but Butler does not seem too concerned about the situation.

"Oh, he's going to play. He's going to play," Butler said with a laugh. "He is getting impatient. He really wants to get out there. He has one more stage – he has to get his screws out and then he'll be done."

Oden has been practicing using just his left hand and Butler thinks he could be a dominant force playing with one arm tied behind his back.

"I think he could," he said. "He could play with that one hand and be fine."

Butler thinks that all of the newcomers will be strong contributors this year. The group includes point guard Mike Conley Jr., shooting guard Daequan Cook, small forward David Lighty and power forward Othello Hunter. The latter is a junior college transfer and is the only non-freshman in the "Thad Five."

Butler thinks his game will be boosted by the addition of Conley because Butler can slide over to two-guard when Conley is in the game.

"Oh, it's going to help the team a lot because Mike, he's a great point guard," Butler said. "He can pass the ball, score, and I don't mind moving to the two and taking a couple more shots myself. So, it's pretty good.

"And Daequan and Dave are going to play a lot and they are good players right now. They are going to help a lot. And Othello is going to play a lot. It's hard to believe all of those guys are in the same recruiting class."

Another player everyone on OSU's team is excited about is Lewis, the 6-4 senior guard who averaged 11.2 points per game last year.

"Ron is athletic, he can shoot and can get to the rim," Butler said. "He's going to have to step up and be a leader this year too.

"He's like me. He's quiet too, so he's going to have to work on being a leader, at least a vocal leader. But I think between the two of us we'll get it done."

Lewis thinks that Butler is the ideal floor general for the Buckeyes. He calls him a tough player that is willing to do anything to help the team win.

"Jamar is a solid point guard and he knows how to get everybody involved," Lewis said. "And you can see that right now and you could see that this summer. He gets everyone involved, even the freshmen. Taking them under his wing like Mike Conley and he's playing well, just like Jamar was last year."

It's interesting that Butler has developed into such a great defender. He admits that in high school he couldn't care less about playing defense.

"I kind of developed my defense when I got to college," Butler said. "In high school, I was all offense. But when I got here I knew I had to play defense to get on the court. So, I took pride in it.

"Playing good defense is all about pride, toughness and you have to have the mindset that your man is not going to score. I try to tell myself that every game."

But Butler says learning how to play good defense was not the biggest adjustment he had to make between high school and college.

"I would have to say playing on the road was the biggest adjustment," he said. "Especially playing on the road in the Big Ten. And with the team that we have this year it's going to be really tough."

And one of the reasons OSU has been so successful under Matta is how well the team shoots the ball. Matta's staff charts every shot in practice and the players literally shoot until their arms are tired. You would be hard-pressed to find a college basketball team that works more on shooting than the Buckeyes.

"Coach Matta says you have to make open shots," Butler said. "If you're open, you have to knock down your shots. We don't have that much depth and we're not that big other than Greg, so we're really going to have to rely on our perimeter game. We're going to have to make our shots. We work hard at it and it's a big part of our team."

Butler was asked for his goal this season in terms of shooting percentage from three-point range.

"100 percent," he said with a smile. "You don't want to miss. But I'm going to try and do about what I did last year. I think I was around 40 percent last year, so if I could do that again that would be all right with me."

The Buckeyes were one of the surprise teams in college basketball last season. They began the year unranked, but were in the top 25 from late December on, captured the outright Big Ten championship and finished the season with a 26-6 record.

"A lot of people didn't expect us to do it," Butler said of the Big Ten title. "In the preseason, they had us ranked sixth or seventh in the Big Ten and we just got the job done at home, on the road and I think that was great to win the Big Ten championship."

But the season ended on a sour note with the 70-52 loss to Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes were the higher-seeded team and were playing just an hour down the road in Dayton.

"It took a couple days to get over," Butler said. "It was a tough loss and that was my last time playing with those seniors and especially Foster. He was my best friend on the team and I knew that was my last game with him."

The Buckeyes will be facing a tough non-conference schedule this season, including road contents against 2004-05 national champion North Carolina and 2005-06 national champion Florida. But Butler is excited about the grueling slate.

"It's going to help a lot because we know what we have in front of us," he said. "We have a young group and we have some big guns in there and we just have to get them going early and get them confident in the college game and we'll be fine.

"Walking around campus, you hear people talking about the Florida game, the North Carolina game, but we're just going to take it one game at a time. We're playing them on their court, so it's going to be tough."

The Buckeyes are breaking out new uniforms this year for the first time since 1998. But Butler doesn't think the popular gray uniforms will make a comeback this season.

"I like the new uniforms a lot," Butler said. "I think we only have the two sets: white and red. The grays, if we do get them, will be a surprise."

And guess who is the strongest player on the team? It's none other than Butler with a 335-pound bench. You won't find many guards who can out-lift anyone on their team.

"It's good to be strong out here on the court, especially in the Big Ten because it's a very physical conference," Butler said.


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