INDIANAPOLIS – Butler men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann knows all too well how the Winthrop players and coaches are feeling today.
His assistant, Terry Johnson, does as well.
“They should be confident,” Johnson said of the Eagles. “They have worked hard throughout this season to get to this point. (Making the NCAA Tournament) was probably their ultimate goal and it was our ultimate goal.”
The two Butler coaches have spent time at the lower levels of college basketball so they get what being the underdog means in a matchup and Johnson clearly understands psychology, as well.
“Butler basketball will always be the underdog,” Johnson argued. “No matter what.”
Whatever works, coach.
The Bulldogs (23-8) will face Winthrop (26-6) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Milwaukee (1:30 p.m., TNT), and despite Johnson’s message to his players and the rest of the college basketball world, no one is viewing Butler as any type of “underdog.”
The Bulldogs received the highest seed in program history (four) and have built a resume throughout this season to warrant such.
Butler was 14-5 against a dozen NCAA Tournament teams and have beaten 10 opponents that rank among the nation’s top 50 teams according to RPI.
All of which, and Johnson and Holtmann fully comprehend this, means absolutely nothing once the ball gets tossed up by the official on Thursday.
“Winthrop is a terrific program,” Holtmann said. “They have won consistently, you look at their last 10 to 15 years, and they have been in their conference (Big South) finals or in the NCAA Tournament and advanced.”
The Eagles have played in 10 NCAA Tournaments and in 2007 beat the living daylights out of Notre Dame (74-64) to open the NCAA Tournament.
Holtmann spent three years watching Winthrop “win consistently” against him.
While he was at Big South foe Gardner-Webb, Winthrop beat Holtmann’s teams four out of six times. And he knows five out of seven is a real possibility.
“When you look at those (4-seed vs. 13-seed) games, they are kind of 50-50 balls,” Holtmann said. “It’s just how you play. Do you play well enough to win?”
Similar to Holtmann, Johnson has coached at both NAIA’s Indiana Tech, as well as mid-major Fort Wayne, so both guys have been on the other side of this type of a matchup. Butler’s reputation won’t help it much, if its ability to make plays isn’t prevalent.
“We’re going to have to go out there and execute,” Johnson said.
Which is something that Butler hasn’t done a tremendous job of lately.
The Bulldogs have dropped their past two games in large part due to poor offensive execution, particularly in the second half.
In its regular-season closing loss to Seton Hall at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler shot just 31 percent in the second half. That trend continued in the Big East Tournament, as the Bulldogs were limited to a meager 38 percent shooting in the second half against Xavier and lost.
In those two halves, the Bulldogs have made just 3 of 19 3-point shots.
“We’ve been working on our offensive execution,” Holtmann said of recent practices. “We need more efficiency, we turned the ball over. We got some really good shots late, but they made a few more plays than us.”
The coaches will stress execution and continued improvement until Thursday, and Johnson, who has been to more NCAA Tournaments than he could recall off the top of his head, had a message for his players prior to their workout Sunday afternoon.
“I laid in the middle of the court in Hinkle and yelled ‘This is a great day. Let’s have a great practice,’ Johnson laughed. “Don’t take this thing for granted. It is a blessing on Selection Sunday knowing that you are already in.”
Getting in is one thing, but winning is quite another.