Chris Holtmann proved to be a pretty good crisis manager last season, leading to a six-year contract extension for a guy who wasn’t the Butler coach on a full-time basis until after Big East play started.
Now comes the tough part — dealing with expectations.
“If our team can have a similar chemistry, a similar toughness about them (as last season), I think we’ll be pleased with how we perform,” says Holtmann, who was named interim head coach when Brandon Miller took a medical leave of absence just before the start of preseason practice.
Many observers expected Butler to struggle after that. The Bulldogs were picked seventh in the Big East coaches’ poll, but they tied for second and returned to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence. Holtmann was named coach on a permanent basis in January and received a contract extension in March after reports surfaced that other schools were pursuing him.
The Bulldogs return two of the Big East’s best players in Roosevelt Jones and sharpshooting Kellen Dunham. But a program that prides itself on defense lost two of the league’s top defenders to graduation and needs contributions from three talented sophomores who were inconsistent last season in order to challenge for the Big East title.
All Big East predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Andrew Chrabascz isn’t overly athletic at 6'7" and 236 pounds. He doesn’t have the look of a primary post scorer. But he’s a master at using the glass to get the ball over taller defenders and cutting and finding gaps in the lane. His emergence was one of the most important developments in Butler’s 2014-15 season, and he’s being counted on heavily again.
But the Bulldogs will have a hard time making up for the loss of Kameron Woods, a menacing force defensively and on the boards. Tyler Wideman will get a chance to do so. He doesn’t have Woods’ wingspan (few do), but he was the strongest player on the team last year as a freshman. He’s a potential load on the blocks and showed a soft shooting touch around the basket. Wideman has said several times that his biggest problem is he sometimes “struggles with his motor.” That’s something Holtmann doesn’t want to hear this season.
Jackson Davis played sparingly as a freshman, but Holtmann is looking for him to be an energy guy and stretch opposing defenses. He was a prolific scorer in high school, but his defensive play must improve. Expect incoming freshman Nate Fowler to get a long look. He could provide another burly body next to Wideman. Returning senior Austin Etherington adds depth.
No. 20 Butler Bulldogs Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-11, 12-6 Big East
Postseason: Second round
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Big East Projection: 2
Postseason Projection: Second round
Dunham had a reputation as a good shooter before last season. He became a great one, shooting 41 percent from 3-point range despite being the primary defensive focus of most teams. Dunham gets his shot off quickly, and Butler’s offense is at its best when it gets the ball to him on the wing in transition.
With the possible exception of Providence’s Kris Dunn, no Big East player is more valuable to his team than Jones, who bounced back in a big way after missing the 2013-14 season due to a wrist injury. The 6'4" Jones is listed as a forward, but it’s hard to pigeonhole him. He doesn’t shoot particularly well — he didn’t attempt a 3-point shot — but his running floaters in the lane are a nightmare for opposing defenses. He’s an exceptionally strong on-the-ball defender and is one of Butler’s primary ball handlers.
Alex Barlow’s leadership and defensive play at the point will be missed, but Tyler Lewis is an experienced replacement and should be an upgrade offensively. Lewis redshirted last season after transferring from NC State, where he started 18 games during the 2013-14 season.
Kelan Martin got off to a terrific start offensively as a freshman before slowing down during conference play. St. Bonaventure transfer Jordan Gathers is expected to provide needed depth and versatility.
Key Losses: G Alex Barlow, F Kameron Woods
Top Players: G Tyler Lewis, G Kellen Dunham, F Roosevelt Jones, F Andrew Chrabascz, F Tyler Wideman
Nate Fowler is the closest thing to a post player on the roster and has a chance to start. The Bulldogs badly need a replacement for Kameron Woods, especially on the defensive end. Jordan Gathers has one season of eligibility left after transferring from St. Bonaventure and can play both on and off the ball. Sean McDermott went to the same high school as Kellen Dunham and has a similar style and build, but he looks to be reserve player as a freshman.
Butler has all the makings of a solid team, and a return to the NCAA Tournament is likely. Can the Bulldogs be a great team and contend for the Big East title? That might be a stretch. There isn’t much size, and it’s hard to see them being as good defensively without Woods and Barlow. Still, only a fool would underestimate this program considering its run of success. It should be another fun season around Hinkle Fieldhouse.