INDIANAPOLIS -- After Butler’s season opening win over Maine on Nov. 15, assorted friends and family members gathered at the Holtmann household to celebrate. There was good reason for good cheer beyond the win: It was Chris Holtmann’s debut as the program’s interim head coach, a role thrust upon him a little more than a month earlier. So Lori Holtmann played the gleeful, gracious host.
Her husband, not so much.
“About every 15 minutes I was looking at my watch wondering when my family was going to leave,” Chris Holtmann said with a laugh, sitting courtside after a recent evening practice. “I’m not exactly proud of that.”
He had brought home the file for Chattanooga, the next opponent, and after indeed tending to his guests he started working on editing Maine film around 11 p.m. He finally fell asleep at 1 a.m. Then he woke up at 3:30, tiptoed past his slumbering brother- and sister-in-law downstairs en route the family room, and knocked out two or three more hours of prep. Holtmann couldn’t be blamed. Very little in the last year has gone as planned for the Bulldogs, and there is no option but to plow ahead resolutely and solve the problem right in front of them.
After going to six NCAA tournaments in seven seasons, including two national title game appearances, the Bulldogs nosedived to 14-17 and just four wins in their debut Big East campaign of 2013-14. Then on Oct. 2, the school announced that coach Brandon Miller -- the former Butler standout who replaced the departed Brad Stevens in 2013 -- would take an indefinite medical leave of absence. The 41-year-old Holtmann, entering his second year as an assistant after three seasons as Gardner-Webb’s head coach, was elevated to interim coach.
And now here are the Bulldogs, winning three times by 20 or more points to start the season. They head into Wednesday’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament opener against sixth-ranked North Carolina knowing that the Butler Way might represent the only way out of this. “One thing we know about guys who coach here is that they all preach the same thing,” senior Kameron Woods said. “We play the game the same way. We know that things are going to be the same no matter who’s at the top calling the shots, so we just try to keep all the guys’ spirits up and try to keep our team focused on the same thing, which is to win at the highest level.”
Common sense requires a bold-faced footnote here: If you set the bar with home wins over Maine, Chattanooga and Loyola-Maryland, then that means the bar is too low. Butler faces a gauntlet in the Bahamas -- Indiana State, Northwestern, Tennessee and Indiana -- before conference play. That will allow everyone to put progress in proper context. On the other hand, Butler finished eighth in the Big East in field goal percentage last year (42.9 percent) and ninth out of 10 in field goal percentage defense (44.7). Any progress is progress.
And the players insist on-court problems stemmed from off-court issues anyway. “It was my fault as much as anybody’s, just letting some guys undermine what we were trying to do here,” said junior Kellen Dunham, who has averaged 22 points in the first three games. “There was no leadership last year at all, basically. Guys had their own agendas and things like that. But I feel like this year it’s all coming together.”
No one named names. But the only notable departures from last season’s roster were the graduated Khyle Marshall, the second-leading scorer in 2013-14; Erik Fromm; and guard Elijah Brown, who transferred to New Mexico. Now Bulldogs players no longer have to send repeated text messages to encourage or remind players to show up for group functions; everyone lingers in the locker room or migrates to off-campus houses together.
“The way we play, we depend on each other so much, whether that’s offense or defense,” Woods said. “We have to want to see each other do well.”
That still requires a solid plan, which could have been lost in the changing of coaches.
Shocking as it was, Miller’s leave of absence for an unidentified medical issue didn’t blindside Butler as much as it did the general public. “I was surprised,” Holtmann said, “even though I had a sense he was struggling.” Still, it’s a big deal to call an assistant off the road and tell him he’s the interim coach, as athletic director Barry Collier did with Holtmann. And it’s a big deal to gather players and break the news and ask them if anyone had problems with Holtman taking over the day-to-day operations. No one in the room raised a hand, Woods said.
Which left Holtmann to call his wife and inform her that life was about to change. He took Gardner-Webb from eight wins in 2009-10 to 21 in his last season, so he was no novice occupying the first chair. “You have maybe a little more poise,” Holtmann said. “I was maybe at times too reactive my first year or two. Now I sometimes take a deep breath. When decisions are coming at you, you take a deep breath and (ask), what’s best for the program, what’s prudent. And you’re not as reactive. That’s helped.”
Walk into Hinkle Fieldhouse on a cold November night, and Holtmann is working the choreography of offensive sets, looking like anything but a temp. It’s a delicate thing, taking ownership of a program that technically isn’t yours. There just happens to be no alternative.
On the floor, Dunham says the offense is “probably 85 percent of the stuff we did last year,” but there are a few more pick-and-pop actions to take advantage of better shooters. Woods sees a little more freedom, too; instead of sets run for specific looks, there’s room to improvise. “We don’t know where that’s going to come from, we’re just putting you in position to make a play,” Woods said.
Holtmann will benefit from a roster willing to scrap in practices when he put the team in competitive situations. He will benefit from the return of 6-foot-4 junior Roosevelt Jones, who in 2012-13 led Butler in assists while finishing second in rebounds and third in scoring before missing all of last year with a wrist injury. Jones has averaged 10.7 points, 7.3 assists and three boards while shooting 52 percent to open the season, leading an offense that has five players averaging at least nine points per night. It’s a miniscule sample size against middling competition, and the kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency number (101.2) actually trails last year’s figure (104.0), but they’ll take the balance and wins for now.
And as long as Butler acts like a team that is cognizant of what caused it problems last year, Holtmann will consider everything mostly on track. “Having gone through the season we had last year, particularly from like January on -- if that doesn’t toughen you up a little bit, then, man, what a waste that was,” Holtmann said. “Seriously. What an absolute waste. Our entire approach and mindset has to be more mature and tougher or else we didn’t learn much from that.”
The circumstances of the season are weird. Holtmann opts to call the situation “unique.” He deemed it “one you never truly prepare yourself for.” And how could he? How could Butler?
No choice, really, but to treat the present as if it is also the future.
“We wish coach Miler well, we’re going to keep him in our prayers,” Woods said. “Obviously we don’t know if he’s coming back, (or) when he’s coming back, but we know Holtmann is our guy. We all trust him. We came here to play basketball and win games.”