Butler Regains Its Old Identity in the New Big East

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 14th, 2015

After years of sustained success under head coach Brad Stevens, the Bulldogs joined the revamped Big East in 2013 and immediately plummeted. New head coach Brandon Miller inherited a group that returned rising star Kellen Dunham, but despite a 27-9 record in the program’s only Atlantic 10 season, Butler struggled with the adjustment. First, junior guard Roosevelt Jones suffered a broken wrist that forced him to miss the entire season, and then the offense bottomed out at the start of Big East play. This resulted in the team losing 15 of its last 19 games to finish the season at 14-17 and a ninth-place Big East finish, just one game ahead of DePaul. Some questioned whether Butler had flown too close to the sun — whether the program could rediscover its identity in a conference where it would never be the biggest name on the marquee. But under the tutelage of interim-turned-head coach Chris Holtmann this season, Butler is back to its old ways — the Butler way — sporting a mix of hard-nosed, physical defense and a tempo designed to emphasize efficiency over pace.

Butler's Chris Holtmann Has Gotten the Butler Way Back in Action (USA Today Images)

Butler’s Chris Holtmann Has Gotten the Butler Way Back in Action (USA Today Images)

After a road win at Seton Hall on Tuesday night, Butler is off to a 13-5 record (3-2 Big East). That record includes wins over North Carolina, Georgetown, St. John’s and Xavier, earned behind a defense that ranks 29th nationally in defensive efficiency. I did a poor job with them getting them ready to play with the aggressiveness that Butler played [with], North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said at the time. Very aggressive, and I’m not insinuating anything other than very aggressive – I didn’t say anything at all about being dirty – but it was very aggressive play. They outhustled us.

Behind Butler’s ascension has been the junior sharpshooter Dunham, a 6’6″ guard with unlimited range and the ability to shoot off the dribble. His scoring has been somewhat inconsistent as he adjusts to the role of the team’s primary scorer, but recent outbursts against Seton Hall (21 points) and St. John’s (28) show that he’s getting more comfortable. Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin said after his own loss to the Bulldogs: “[Dunham] was outstanding as he didn’t get rattled, picked his spots for dagger threes and yet did not force the action. His judgments and offensively were outstanding.” Holtmann knows he doesn’t have the tallest or most athletic roster in the Big East, but he counters that with a group that outhustles its opponents and plays physically on the glass. Despite ranking 199th nationally in effective height, Butler’s offensive and defensive rebounding figures rank in the top 40, and the team also leads the conference in rebounding margin (+5.8) and in offensive rebounds per game (13.1). Against Seton Hall last night, Butler pulled down 18 offensive rebounds and ultimately won the rebounding battle by a margin of eight, resulting in 19 very important second-chance points in an overtime win.

After losing numerous close games last season including four defeats in overtime, a distinct mental toughness that was missing has reemerged with an experienced core group of players. Butler now features three seniors and two juniors in its eight-man rotation, four of whom were present on the 2013 NCAA Tournament squad. The rebuilding period that was expected following Stevens’ departure appears to have already come to pass; Holtmann has developed his team into a group with legitimate NCAA Tournament expectations. And folks around the conference are starting to get a sense of the team’s dramatic turnaround. “Coming into this game, you could feel an excitement around here about Butler coming in and the respect people around here have for Butler basketball,” Jay Wright said following the Big East opener. Butler basketball, as we have come to know it over the past 20 years, appears to be back.

Justin Kundrat (175 Posts)

Villanova grad, patiently waiting another 10 years for season tickets. Follow Justin on twitter @JustinKundrat or email him at justin.kundrat@gmail.com

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2 responses to “Butler Regains Its Old Identity in the New Big East”

  1. ctkim says:

    Nice article, but the picture shown is not current coach Chris Holtmann as the caption states. It is last year’s coach, Brandon Miller.

  2. Steve Nelson says:

    The Seton Hall game was a true Bulldog win. Love it. If we get in foul trouble again, get Brandon Crone a pair of shorts!

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