PITTSBURGH (AP) — The fresh-faced coach who orchestrated one of college basketball’s most unlikely success stories is gone. The guy who replaced him too. The Horizon League is a distant memory, replaced by the decidedly sexier Big East.
Yet things haven’t really changed for Butler. It’s March. The Bulldogs are the underdogs.
Same as it ever was.
Five years ago it was coach Brad Stevens and gangly Gordon Hayward that came within a halfcourt heave of a national title. Now it’s former assistant turned unlikely head man Chris Holtmann and Kameron Woods and another group of unheralded unknowns who have sixth-seeded Butler (22-10) facing another daunting path through the bracket starting on Thursday against 11th-seeded Texas (20-13) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
And guess who’s favored? It’s not the team that beat North Carolina and finished tied for second in the Big East. It’s the one that lost nine of its last 15 and struggled to play as well as the sum of its considerably talented parts.
“Certainly there’s a difference in some ways,” said Holtmann, who took over in October when Brandon Miller stepped away for medical reasons and never returned. “People have mentioned it because we’re a smaller school. We’ll always be that. It’s what makes us special.”
Holtmann paused ever so slightly for effect before adding the Longhorns come from “not such a small school.”
On the court or off.
Texas — whose undergraduate student enrollment of 40,000 is about 36,000 higher than Butler’s — boasts one of the nation’s most intimidating frontcourts in 6-foot-11 freshman forward Myles Turner, 6-10 center Prince Ibeh and 6-9 Cameron Ridley. The Longhorns lead the nation in blocks (260) and mystifying losses. Texas rose as high as No. 6 in December before sliding toward sixth in the Big 12. Only a late mini-surge kept them on the right side of the bubble.
Not that it matters now. Texas is in. The shortcomings of the last three months can vanish with a win. Or two. Or three.
“The only thing we have to prove is to prove to ourselves that we’re a great team like we said we are,” Turner said. “Everybody has their opinions. Yeah we haven’t had the most productive season. But we know what kind of team we’re capable of being.”
It’s a refrain the Bulldogs found themselves repeating not so long ago. Butler stumbled through its initial season in the Big East in 2013-14, going 14-17 and 4-14 with Stevens off coaching in the NBA. The Bulldogs have reclaimed their identity under Holtmann. Butler led the Big East in rebounding margin and relentlessness while racking up five wins over ranked opponents.
“We have had a group that has really embraced what has made Butler, I think, special and in some ways exceed expectations in the past,” Holtmann said. “That is a real commitment to a team approach, a real commitment to defending consistently, tough-minded guys mentally and physically.”
It’s the Butler way.
Some things to look for as the Bulldogs try to engineer another long tournament stay while the Longhorns try to regain the dazzle they showed in December.
BLOCK PARTY: Texas’ 260 blocks are a school record and easily the most in the country, even more than No. 1 Kentucky. Playing bigger teams is nothing new to the Bulldogs, though the Longhorns do present a unique set of problems.
“We’re obviously going to be cautious and make sure we’re not taking any bad shots in the lane,” Woods said. “Other than that, we’re going to do what we do.”
PIVOTAL MOMENT: Turner knew the Longhorns were having trouble late in the season. It didn’t occur to him just how close Texas was to being on the wrong side of the bubble until he heard the crowd at West Virginia taunting the Longhorns with chants of “NIT! NIT” during a loss on Feb. 24.
“It kind of hit me a little bit once they started chanting that,” Turner said. “Since then it seems like we’ve played with a renewed sense of energy.”
Texas won three of its last four to squeak in for the 15th time in Rick Barnes’ 16 seasons in Austin.
NO BLUE: Butler will be without its lovable mascot Blue III on Thursday. Schools must request permission from the NCAA to have live mascots attend games during the tournament. Blue III’s predecessors did make it to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011. Blue III might make it if the Bulldogs put together a run to Indianapolis. The good news? It wouldn’t require any travel for Blue III, last seen falling ill on the floor at Madison Square Garden during a loss to Xavier in the Big East tournament.
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