Butler guards get by with a little help from their girlfriends

Kellen Dunham (left) and Tyler Lewis got some assistance in the gym last summer, and it's paying off now.

Jared Wickerham & Michael Hickey

INDIANAPOLIS – If you’re looking for a reason why the Butler Bulldogs – historically a grind-it-out, defense-first program – are among the nation’s top 25 in offensive efficiency, it wouldn’t hurt to look a little bit deeper into the lives of their dynamic backcourt duo of senior Kellen Dunham and junior Tyler Lewis.

Specifically, look toward each of their girlfriends.

During the offseason, Dunham and Lewis could be seen at all hours of the day and night at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

When Dunham, one of the best shooters in college basketball, was hoisting up threes this summer, there was his girlfriend of more than a year, McKenzie Evans, a Ball State University senior, rebounding for him. She was as tough on him as the Butler coaching staff. Free throw rattled in instead of a swish? Doesn’t count, gotta shoot five more. Miss too many threes? Twenty pushups for every miss. Hungry? We can’t go eat until you make 15 threes in a row. At one point, Dunham made 120 of 140, never missing two in a row.

When Lewis – a quintessential floor general who makes flashy passes look easy but who struggled shooting threes at his former school, North Carolina State – was putting up some 700 shots a day over the summer, there was his girlfriend since high school, Ali Burgiss, a University of North Carolina student who lived in Indy for the summer, tossing back his misses and his makes. At one point over the summer the two took a weekend trip to Chicago, and Lewis didn’t get a chance to shoot that weekend. So when they got back to Indy at midnight, they went straight to Hinkle Fieldhouse and put up shots for nearly an hour.

McKenzie Evans was a nonstop rebounder for Kellen Dunham last summer.

It’s one of those only-in-college-hoops love stories: Boy meets girl. Girl likes boy. Girl helps boy rebound for untold hours in the offseason. And boy shows his appreciation with … well …

Here’s Dunham, talking about his girlfriend:

“She got a sweat from rebounding, then we’d go run stairs. And she loves ice cream. So as long as I took her to Graeter’s (a Cincinnati-based chain with ridiculously rich ice cream) she was all for it. I’d usually get cookies and cream. She loves chocolate. I’d get two scoops, she’d get one.”

And here’s Lewis, talking about his girlfriend:

“Some days she didn’t want to go, but I’d just push her. I’d make a deal with her about rebounding. She rebounds for me, I’ll take her out on a date. Once, I took her out to Harry & Izzy’s (a ridiculously good Indianapolis steakhouse known for its super-spicy shrimp cocktail), and that was our best date. The cocktail sauce was so spicy, I cried. It took a bite out of the wallet, but it was worth it.”

Ali Burgiss was often alongside Tyler Lewis on the court, too.

Plenty of girls would look at it as a slog, these hours upon hours spent chasing bouncing orange balls in a gym. Not these two.

For Evans, the hours in the gym deepened their relationship. She was able to experience a bit of Dunham’s first love of basketball and see firsthand how hard he works at it.

“It’s experiencing your true vulnerable self in front of each other,” she said.

For Burgiss, who lived in Indianapolis during the summer and taught tennis lessons at a country club, time in the gym with Lewis was serious work. At the end of workouts, he had to make five free throws in a row. If he missed one, he had to make two more to make up for it. In the gym, the two were all business, Burgiss said, “but then there were times when I’d get the ball and he’d say, ‘I love you.’ Or, ‘Thanks for being here.’ It was so sweet.”

Young love is nice and all, and repaying girlfriends’ untold hours of rebounding with ice cream and steak dinners is nice and all, but what Butler Bulldogs fans want to know is this: Did it work?


Well, it’s early. But right now, Butler looks good. After a 78-76 victory at No. 17 Cincinnati on Wednesday night, the Bulldogs are 5-1. And early returns on Dunham’s and Lewis’ shooting are pretty damn good, too. Dunham’s three-point accuracy matches his 41.0 percent from last season; he’s averaging 21.2 points per game, nearly five points higher than his career high, and is shooting 95.7 percent from the free-throw line.

For Lewis, a former McDonald’s All-American who has never been a lights-out shooter, early returns also show marked improvement. His offensive rating is higher than it’s ever been, one of the best marks in college hoops. He’s shooting 90.9 percent from the free-throw line and 31.3 percent from three-point range, which would both be career highs.

Lewis and Dunham have been roommates since Lewis transferred from N.C. State. Having a knockdown shooter as a roommate has been motivation for Lewis to get better. There were plenty of times this summer when it was just the four of them – two Butler Bulldogs, two girlfriends of Butler Bulldogs – at Hinkle, putting up shot after shot after shot.

“A lot of shooting is confidence,” Lewis said. “As many as you can see going through the basket, the more confidence you see in your jump shot. Repetition was key to me. Kellen talks about the confidence factor a lot. You gotta know the next one is going in.”

And it helps if there’s a girl in the gym who you’re trying to impress, too.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.