Butler men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann is spending this week in preparation for his fifth NCAA Tournament game as a head coach and he is now experienced enough to know what this tournament will bring his team, which is a close game.
The Bulldogs (23-8) will face Winthrop (26-6) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Milwaukee (TNT, WLYV 1450 AM).
Under Holtmann, Butler has reached the NCAA Tournament each of his three seasons in leading the program and his teams have won opening games by eight (Texas) and 10 (Texas Tech), but lost in the second round by three (Notre Dame) and eight (Virginia).
Postseason play often results in close games, but Holtmann said earlier this season that this particular squad has developed an ability to thrive in such situations. Of the Bulldogs’ 31 games, 22 have been decided by 10 or fewer points, and two more by 11-point margins.
“Looking back to all of the games that we’ve played,” Holtmann said, “Arizona was a close game, Northwestern was a tight game, (mental toughness) has kind of been built throughout the year and we’ve really responded.”
The No. 4-seed awarded to Butler is its highest in program history and the reward for that is facing a 13-seed to open the tournament, which in theory, should make advancing easier, but Holtmann doesn’t see this Butler team as one prone to dominating any opponent.
“I think that our guys understand that we have a small margin for error,” Holtmann said. “We can be beat by literally anybody on any given night; anybody in the country.”
On the bright side, however, the Bulldogs have demonstrated the ability to beat anybody “on any given night,” as evidenced by its season sweep of defending national champion Villanova.
“We also, if we’re really locked in,” Holtmann explained, “and playing well, playing together, we can beat a lot of people. Our guys have learned that and been able to be resilient within games, within some tough stretches in games.”
Butler is coming off a pair of losses to Seton Hall and Xavier and Holtmann has spoken on what separates a successful, mature team is its ability to move forward mentally, which will be necessary this week.
“You’re going to lose in this league,” Holtmann said of the Big East, “you’re going to get beat and you’re going to get beat bad in this league. (But) What is your response?”
No team is new or inexperienced at this point of the year; however, what has helped Butler succeed in some adverse situations this year, despite the fact that it has a lot of new players on the roster, is the fact that a lot of those new players are older.
The Bulldogs play mostly an eight-man rotation, which includes six players that are in at least their third year of college basketball and three that are in their fifth, which is a tremendous asset to have in a single-elimination tournament.
“We’re a new group, but we’re an older group,” Holtmann said. “We have a variety of guys who can step up and lead on occasion. They have done that. I’ve always said that players win games, particularly this time of year. They do, players win games.”
Winthrop will have to deal with a Butler program that doesn’t necessarily rely on one or two specific players to do that leading.
This season, eight different Bulldog players have led the team in scoring at one time or another, while five different players have led Butler in rebounding.
“That needs to be the strength of our team,” Holtmann said. “If we’re going to have success, we need to have varied contributions. That is the make-up of this team.”