For the ninth time in 11 years, the Butler Bulldogs are in the NCAA Tournament. Butler has advanced to three Sweet 16s and two Final Fours during that stretch and would love to do the same in 2017.
The Bulldogs (23-8) are seeded fourth in the South region, but make no mistake: their resume is about as good as anyone’s.
Consider: Butler beat Northwestern, which made the tournament, Bucknell, which made the tournament, Vanderbilt, which made the tournament, Arizona, which made the tournament, and Cincinnnati, which made the tournament.
And that was just in the first month of the season.
Butler then swept Villanova (31-3), which went 31-1 against the rest of America.
With so many impressive wins, surely Butler head coach Chris Holtmann knew what kind of team he had at the beginning of the season, right?
“No, no, I didn’t,” Holtmann said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “After Arizona, I think we felt as a staff, ‘Hey, we’ve got a team that’s capable of doing some things here.’ Ironically, I think maybe the next game we lost at Indiana State.”
It was actually three games after Arizona. Butler lost to Larry Bird’s alma mater, 72-71, on Dec. 7.
“But we knew Northwestern was going to be good,” Holtmann said. “I called them an NCAA Tournament team at the time. I thought Vandy was talented but wasn’t sure if they could get there or not. They’ve obviously done a great job getting there. Cincinnati, Bucknell, Vermont, Indiana – it was an incredible non-conference. I don’t think at the time we realized it, but I will tell you this: After we beat Villanova at home, I came in the next day and we talked as a staff. I said, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t forget how special this season has been up to this point. We’ve beaten the No. 1 team in the country on our home floor, a team we had never beaten. We won a tournament in Vegas, beating a blue-blood program in Arizona. And we did this all kind of under the umbrella before the season got started of, hey, this is a rebuilding year for Butler.’ It’s hard to appreciate those things in the moment because you’re constantly grinding forward, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Butler, which enters the tournament having lost back-to-back games, plays No. 13 Winthrop (26-6) on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET. The Eagles have won 17 of 19, with both losses coming in overtime.
“They’re really good,” Holtmann said. “They’ve won 26 games for a reason. They have a dynamic point guard who is outstanding. He’s a game changer in Keon Johnson.”
The 5-7 senior guard is averaging 22.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists for Winthrop.
“He is a threat at every level offensively,” Holtmann said. “He’s outstanding, and then they have a pro at the 4 who’s a mismatch issue and who can drive it, shoot it, post it, a terrific passer, leads their team in assists.”
That would be junior Xavier Cooks, who is averaging 16.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
“They play through him a little bit like we do with Andrew Chrabascz, who’s 6-9 and long, and then they have a lot of really good players around them,” Holtmann said. “They’re outstanding. Our guys understand it’s a great challenge. It’s going to be a great challenge. These 4/13, 5/12 (match-ups), we know they’re always great games and they’re kind of 50/50 balls. It’s going to depend on who plays better in those 40 minutes. . . . I think our guys understand that it’s going to be a tough game, and we just need to stay with it each and every possession and stay in the moment, which is not unlike really what we’ve talked to them about throughout the season.”
If victorious, Butler would face the winner of No. 5 Minnesota (24-9) versus No. 12 Middle Tennessee (30-4) in the Round of 32 on Saturday.