When Chris Holtmann took over as Butler’s interim head coach in October, the program’s trajectory was unclear. The Bulldogs had parlayed their recent NCAA tournament success into two conference switches but did not acquit themselves well in the recast Big East. In 2013-14, Butler went 4-14 in the conference and finished with a losing record for the first time since 2004-05. Brandon Miller was chosen to lead the Bulldogs after Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics of the NBA, but Miller took an indefinite medical leave of absence in the preseason.
With Holtmann in charge, the Bulldogs were picked to finish seventh in the Big East, behind favorite Villanova and second-tier contenders Georgetown, St. John’s and Xavier, among other programs. In addition, Butler was not perceived as a likely candidate to make the NCAA tournament, much less compete for a conference title. Even though the Bulldogs were set to bring back two of their top three scorers and Roosevelt Jones would return after missing the previous season with an injury, there was reason to question how the Bulldogs would fare.
On Tuesday, Butler, which opened the week ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press Poll, beat the Red Storm, 85-62, at Hinkle Fieldhouse to move to 17-6 and 7-3 in the Big East. With about a month remaining in the regular season, the Bulldogs sit only one game in the loss column behind Villanova for first place in the conference and are on track to comfortably make the NCAAs. To wit: SI.com Bubble Watcher Michael Beller wrote Tuesday that Butler “would almost have to lose out to be in any jeopardy of missing the tournament.”
About a month ago, Butler announced it was shedding the interim label from the job title of Holtmann, who joined the Bulldogs as an assistant in 2013 after serving as the coach at Big South member Gardner-Webb for three seasons.
How has he helped Butler exceed expectations and earn virtual tourney-lock status by Groundhog Day? Two obvious virtues are rebounding and limiting giveaways. Entering Tuesday, the Bulldogs were turning the ball over on a Big East-low 14.1 percent of their possessions in conference play and ranked second and first, respectively, in offensive rebounding percentage and offensive rebounding percentage allowed. Butler’s glass work deserves extra praise in light of the team finishing seventh and eighth in those two categories a year ago.
Butler has also made huge strides defensively. On Tuesday, the Bulldogs ranked third in the Big East in adjusted defensive efficiency during league play, compared to ninth last season. That leap translates to Butler allowing their opponents to score fewer points on their trips down the floor, but the significance of that may not be fully appreciated without a quick look at the Bulldogs’ offense. As of Tuesday, Butler had connected on only 43 percent of its twos in Big East play and posted an effective field goal percentage of 45.4, both of which rank ninth in the league.
Fortunately, sophomore forward Andrew Chrabascz has contributed 20 points on 62.3 percent combined shooting over the last three games, including a 30-point outburst in a Jan. 31 overtime win over Marquette. If Chrabascz cools off in the coming weeks, Butler will need Kellen Dunham and Jones, who ranked seventh and eighth in conference scoring on Tuesday, to keep the Bulldogs afloat on the offensive end. Butler has can continue to win with stingy defense, yet even a slight uptick in offensive performance could yield more positive results.
Still, Butler’s formula has proven remarkably successful in a conference that currently ranks as the second toughest in the country, per Kenpom. The Bulldogs have already faced arguably the top two teams in the league, Georgetown and Villanova, on the road and they host host No. 7 Villanova on Valentine’s Day, seven days after a Feb. 7 home meeting with DePaul. A Butler program that opened the season amid uncertainty is set up well to finish an already strong season on a high note.