Women's Basketball Sidebar: Butler looking to make mark during tournament run

Natalie Butler attempts a lay-up during the Huskies 105-57 victory over the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on Saturday, March 4, 2017. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Natalie Butler’s time in Storrs has not been easy.

After transferring from Georgetown at the end of her freshman year, Butler sat out the 2014-15 season due to NCAA transfer issues. The following season, Butler made her UConn debut midway through the season when she returned from a thumb injury. But she never really cracked the usual rotation, playing just 12 minutes per game.

Although Butler has seen more time this season, averaging 16 minutes per game and scoring 5.6 points per game, her numbers are a far cry from Butler’s freshman year, where she averaged 13.9 points and 13.4 rebounds as part of her Big East Freshman of the Year-winning season.

While the minutes and numbers for Butler are different than they were at Georgetown, she’s showcased the skills and talent that made her one of the best frontcourt players in the country in her time with the Hoyas.

The most obvious example was the Huskies’ 100-44 blowout of USF in the American Athletic Conference championship. Even though the game was out of hand, Butler put on a clinic against Bulls, scoring 10 points and hauling in 10 rebounds for a double-double in just over 20 minutes of work.

“I think it’s important for me because it’s been a struggle this season. I think it’s important to take this into the next two weeks of practice and to build off of it for the NCAA Tournament. I really think that tonight helped me build my confidence,” Butler said after the March 6 win over the Bulls.

In a nutshell, Butler serves as a stopgap for two of UConn’s potentially glaring weaknesses: size and rebounding. The 6-foot-5-inch forward immediately adds significant size to a UConn lineup and is likely the team’s best rebounder on a per-40-minute basis. Against teams with significant size in the frontcourt, Butler can easily spell Napheesa Collier or Gabby Williams on defense due to her size and knack for getting blocks.

“I think I’ve started to progress with that,” Butler says in regard to blocking shots. “I’m starting to get the timing down, starting to jump more instead of getting flat-footed.”

Not to mention, Butler can contribute enough offensively to hold her own, whether it be from scoring in the low post or stepping out and stretching defenses with a reliable midrange jumper.

“Being able to shoot the 15-footer, 17-footer opens things up for Napheesa or Gabby,” Butler said. “Just trying to be as helpful on offense as possible.”

Aside from her skills down low, Butler also takes pride in her passing ability, whether it be from the high post or an outlet pass to spark the fast break.

“I definitely take that to heart. I’m a post player. I know where I want the ball, how I want to get the ball. If I can’t get it to my teammate who’s a post player, how does that reflect on me?” Butler said. “I definitely feel like making a good pass inside is very important.”

Even though Butler didn’t see much action at times this season, this skillset will be in demand if the Huskies continue to advance in this year’s NCAA Tournament. While Albany and Syracuse certainly did not have real scoring options in the post, many of UConn’s potential opponents down the road like South Carolina, Notre Dame and Maryland certainly do. Even though the Gamecocks and Fighting Irish have lost post players due to injury, Butler’s size and skill will be necessary if the team wants to win its fifth title in a row, and she is ready for the challenge.

“I know that there’s going to be bigger teams, so it’s important for me to build that [confidence] going into the NCAA Tournament,” Butler said. “I think that setting screens, getting our 3-point shooters open, pick and roll, even if I just crash hard, I don’t even need the ball in the post, it just sucks the defense in…I think there’s other aspects that I can definitely help out on.”


Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.