RALEIGH, N.C. — Butler coach Chris Holtmann isn’t blind to the disadvantage of entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed. If you can win what is supposed to be a near-even matchup with a No. 8 seed in your opening game, you get to keep dancing. The caveat? Your next game is against a No. 1 seed.
“When you’re in the 8–9 game,” Holtmann said, “I think everyone knows what’s coming next if you win.”
Butler faces that reality after it topped No. 8 Texas Tech, 71–61, in the first round of the NCAA tournament Midwest Regional on Thursday. With a win, the Bulldogs reached the second round of March Madness for the second consecutive season, and they did so with a daunting obstacle lying in wait: a Saturday date with top-seeded Virginia, which ripped through No. 16 Hampton, 81–45 on Thursday.
There’s a reason that matchup might conjure up memories of must-see-TV. In 2010 and ‘11, Butler earned the title of America’s Favorite Mid-Major by upsetting its way to two straight NCAA championship games. Top-10 upsets were commonplace during that particular run. No one knows if these Bulldogs boast the same bravado, but with a different coach (current Celtics coach Brad Stevens ran the Bulldogs during those runs), a different cast and the same hopes, this much is clear: Butler could show the country it’s back as a bracket-buster against the stingy Cavaliers.
On Thursday Butler put together the kind of effort that often precedes deep tournament runs. “I knew it was going to be a grinding, physical game,” Holtmann said, “and it was that.” The matchup featured eight ties and 12 lead changes, and despite Texas Tech building an eight-point first-half lead, the Bulldogs carried a 30–28 advantage into halftime. Butler senior guard Kellen Dunham drilled a three-pointer with 21 seconds left to send his team into the locker room with momentum.
A back-and-forth game continued into the second half, where a layup by Texas Tech’s Zach Smith knotted things up 48–48 with 9:12 to play. Then Kelan Martin came alive for Butler. The sophomore forward entered the NCAA tournament as the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer (16.1 points per game), but he struggled to a scoreless first half against Texas Tech. Just before intermission, Holtmann pulled his 6’6” swingman to the side to calm his nerves. “He’s wired to score,” Holtmann said. “The biggest thing for him was, he needed to let it happen.”
Soon, Martin stopped forcing the issue, and he delivered just in time for Butler. Martin knocked down two straight three-pointers to give his team a 54–48 lead with around eight minutes to play, forcing a timeout from Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith. The Bulldogs didn’t look back.
Afterward, Smith seemed ready to bet on Butler’s impending tournament run. “I think they’re a well-prepared, well-coached team,” he said. “They’ve been here before ... I think they’re certainly one of the teams that could do well in this tournament.”
Perhaps it’s too early to slide the Bulldogs into the Final Four. After all, Thursday represented the first step in what could be a long, arduous process for Butler. But it’s hardly sacrilege to point out similarities between this Butler team and those that shocked the country years ago. In 2010, Stevens took a five-seed and stifled higher-seeded opponents like Kansas State, Michigan State and Syracuse en route to the title game, in which Gordon Hayward’s last-second prayer famously clanked off the rim in a loss to Duke. The following year, a less-than-heralded Butler team carried a No. 8 seed into the tournament. The result? The Bulldogs made it back to the title game, this time losing to Kemba Walker’s UConn Huskies.
Two seasons later, Stevens left for the NBA. But the gritty, chip-on-your-shoulder attitude that defined Stevens’s Butler teams remained with the program. These Bulldogs don’t seem to shy away from adversity; in fact, they seem to embrace it. Dunham, who hit five three-pointers on Thursday and led all scorers with 23 points, pointed to Martin’s first-half struggles as Exhibit A. The Bulldogs didn’t panic during that stretch, instead maintaining poise until Martin’s moment arrived. “It shows a testament to our character and our maturity that we’re able to weather the storm and prevail,” Dunham said.
A looming matchup with Virginia could certainly be a different challenge for Butler. The Cavaliers are a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, and they reached the ACC tournament title game before falling to North Carolina, a fellow No. 1 seed. And even though Butler notched wins over the likes of Purdue and Seton Hall, its viability as a giant-slayer remains in doubt. This season the Bulldogs lost games to tournament-caliber clubs like Miami, Providence (three times), Xavier (twice) and Villanova (twice).
On Saturday neither Stevens nor Hayward will walk through the door at PNC Arena, but Butler could use its win over Texas Tech as motivation. Four players scored in double-figures at the Bulldogs hit nearly 50% (25–51) of their shots, including nine of their 17 three-pointers. They scored 16 points off Red Raider turnovers and pulled away when momentum tipped in their favor. In short, Butler played the way a tournament team should if it hopes to avoid an early trip home. “It’s just sticking to our principles,” sophomore forward Tyler Wideman said. “Our coach is drilling into us in practice, just playing the Butler defense, just trying to be the toughest team out there.”
That toughness has evolved into a defining quality for Butler, which is no stranger to March Madness. But if the Bulldogs plan to author a new chapter in the program’s tournament history, they have to survive their biggest test of the season against Virginia. History might be on their side; Butler’s last trip to the Final Four came as a No. 8 seed, and this year’s team is a 9. But Holtmann and his staff don’t plan on leaving anything to chance.
“The players will sleep well tonight,” Holtmann said. “The coaches will not.”